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Road Rights- Ticket Talk, Part 3

By Bob Mionske

In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, I discussed some issues to think about if you get a traffic ticket while riding your bike. Now let’s talk about your best course of action.

If you decide not to fight your ticket, you have nothing more to do except pay the fine. However, you should be aware of an alternative that may be available to you. In a handful of cities, including New York City and Portland, Oregon, cyclists can have their ticket dismissed after attending traffic school.

But what if you want to fight your ticket? Here’s what you need to do.

Contact the Court
The first step is to contact the court clerk by the date specified on the ticket. Explain that you want to contest the ticket; you will be given instructions on when and where to appear.

Make Your Plea
Some jurisdictions will require you to appear in court to enter your plea. Other jurisdictions allow you to enter your plea with the court clerk. When you are asked “How do you plead?” the only answer that the clerk wants to hear is “guilty” or “not guilty.” The clerk does not want to hear your defense, or an explanation of what happened, or anything else. If you are contesting the ticket (rather than paying it) you must plead “not guilty.” If you say “guilty,” you will be convicted and fined.

Make Your Defense
Some jurisdictions allow you to make your defense by a written declaration: You send in a written statement telling the court what happened, explaining why you are not guilty. The prosecution sends in its written declaration stating the facts and why you are guilty. The court then sends you its decision.

This is a good option is because it gives you two chances to make your case. If the court rules in your favor, you are not guilty, and the ticket is dismissed. But if you are found guilty, you can request a trial in court.

Whether you have a written trial or a trial in court, remember that you are innocent until proven guilty. This means that the prosecution must prove that you committed a violation; you do not have to prove that you are innocent. But because most traffic violations are infractions, not criminal offenses, the prosecution has a much lower bar to prove its case than it does in a criminal trial. Your job at trial will be to poke holes in the prosecution’s case. The officer will state his or her version of what happened, and you will need to find weak spots in the testimony.

Now let’s revisit the three situations I discussed in Part 2, and how you might go about crafting your defense in each case.

You Broke the Law and Got Caught
If you got caught red-handed, your options are limited. At trial, the officer will testify about what he or she observed, and if your only defense is to contradict the officer’s testimony, you will lose your case. Why? Because the court presumes that the officer has no incentive to lie, and that you do have an incentive—you want to get out of paying your ticket.

So should you just pay up if you know you’re guilty? That’s a decision only you can make. But there are a couple of reasons to consider contesting your ticket, even if you are guilty. First, the officer may not show up in court on the day of your trial. If this happens, the judge should immediately dismiss your ticket. (If the judge tries to reschedule your trial date, request that the ticket be dismissed.) Even if the officer shows up, you can admit your guilt, perhaps offer an explanation that you made a mistake, and ask the judge to give you a break and reduce your fine. If the fine will be a financial hardship, let the judge know.

You Broke the Law, But There’s An Explanation
Suppose you ran a stop sign because it was concealed from your view, perhaps by foliage, or a large truck. Technically, you ran the stop sign. However, in your defense you can make a “mistake of fact” argument—because it was impossible for you to see the stop sign, there was no way for you to know that it was there. Be sure to bring photographs to present as evidence at trial.

Now consider a different scenario—you were ticketed for riding on the sidewalk in a business district, but you were on the sidewalk because you swerved to avoid a right hook. In this situation, you can make a “necessity defense”—riding on the sidewalk at that place was illegal, but it was necessary for you to ride onto the sidewalk to avoid injury, and you intended to return to the roadway after your evasive maneuver.

You Weren’t Breaking the Law, But Got Ticketed Anyway
Sometimes, the officer is just wrong on the law. Or the officer or an eyewitness makes a mistake about what happened. Either way, you may get a ticket. If the facts are wrong, ask questions that cause doubt about the accuracy of what was witnessed. If the officer or eyewitness believes they saw you do something, did they actually see it? Or did they assume they saw something?

If the officer is simply mistaken on the law, introduce a copy of the law into evidence at trial, and argue that what the officer is saying is not what the law says.

Learn More
For more information about what to do when you get a traffic ticket, you can visit my website. Although I do not work with traffic tickets as a part of my bicycle law practice—I focus exclusively on representing cyclists who have been injured while riding—you will find tips for handling your own ticket. Good luck!

Research and assistance by Rick Bernardi, J.D.

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Now read the fine print:
Bicycle and the Law, Bob MionskeBob Mionske is a former competitive cyclist who represented the U.S. at the 1988 Olympic games (where he finished fourth in the road race), the 1992 Olympics, as well as winning the 1990 national championship road race.
After retiring from racing in 1993, he coached the Saturn Professional Cycling team for one year before heading off to law school. Mionske's practice is now split between personal-injury work, representing professional athletes as an agent and other legal issues facing endurance athletes (traffic violations, contract, criminal charges, intellectual property, etc).
Mionske is also the author of Bicycling and the Law, designed to be the primary resource for cyclists to consult when faced with a legal question. It provides readers with the knowledge to avoid many legal problems in the first place, and informs them of their rights, their responsibilities, and what steps they can take if they do encounter a legal problem.
 
If you have a cycling-related legal question, please send it to mionskelaw@hotmail.com Bob will answer as many of these questions privately as he can. He will also select a few questions each week to answer in this column. General bicycle-accident advice can be found at www.bicyclelaw.com.
Important notice:
The information provided in the "Road Rights" column is not legal advice. The information provided on this public web site is provided solely for the general interest of the visitors to this web site. The information contained in the column applies to general principles of American jurisprudence and may not reflect current legal developments or statutory changes in the various jurisdictions and therefore should not be relied upon or interpreted as legal advice. Understand that reading the information contained in this column does not mean you have established an attorney-client relationship with attorney Bob Mionske. Readers of this column should not act upon any information contained in the web site without first seeking the advice of legal counsel.

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