One of the complaints commonly heard about cyclists is that they never get ticketed for breaking the law. In fact, this is not at all true. Like motorists, cyclists get ticketed too.
Sometimes, the cyclist was breaking the law and got caught. Sometimes the cyclist was not breaking the law, but a police officer made a mistake and the cyclist got ticketed. And sometimes, the cyclist was in a grey area somewhere in between. In each of these instances, the cyclist is often faced with questions about what to do.
Each case will vary, because of the facts, laws, jurisdiction, and people involved. Nevertheless, by explaining some of the issues involved, cyclists can have some idea of what to do if they do find themselves being ticketed by a law enforcement officer. I do not handle traffic tickets as a part of my bicycle law practice (I am exclusively focused on representing cyclists who have been injured by motorists, unsafe road conditions, or defective cycling products), but if you have received a traffic ticket, this page will help you navigate through the process of handling your own traffic ticket.
The Traffic Stop
And guess who else can gather evidence at the scene? Again, you. In fact, not only “can” you gather evidence, if you want to defend yourself against the charge, it is probably a must that you gather your own evidence.
When the Cop Says Stop
Let’s start with where your encounter with the legal system begins, at the traffic stop. It doesn’t really matter if you know you were breaking the law, or if you know you were riding lawfully; whatever the case may be, there are some things you need to know about a traffic stop. First, do not ignore a police officer who orders you to stop. One of my first Road Rights columns was about a cyclist who was arrested for failing to stop. When his case came to trial, of the charges against him, and later won a judgment against the Sheriff, but not before he was tased, beaten, cuffed, arrested, and taken to jail. So even if you think the officer should not be pulling you over, when the cop says stop, pull over and stop.
Second, the officer is not your friend. When he asks you if you know why you were stopped, he is not making small talk. He is gathering evidence, and anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law (even if you are only getting a traffic ticket and the officer is not legally obligated to read you your rights). So when the officer starts asking you questions like “Do you know why I stopped you,” remember, he is fishing for evidence. The best response to these fishing expeditions is to answer the question without incriminating yourself. For example, “No, I don’t know why you stopped me.”
Speaking of Fishing Expeditions…
The officer is looking for evidence for a reason—if the ticket goes to trial, the officer will be the witness who tells the court everything you did and said. The prosecution is going to present this evidence in court to convict you. But guess who else can present evidence? You.
And guess who else can gather evidence at the scene? Again, you. In fact, not only “can” you gather evidence, if you want to defend yourself against the charge, it is probably a must that you gather your own evidence.
With your evidence-gathering in mind, let’s revisit the officer’s fishing expedition:
Officer: “Do you know why I stopped you?”
Cyclist: “No, I don’t know why you stopped me.”
Officer: “I stopped you because you________[fill in the blank].”
Now here’s where you get an opportunity to launch your own fishing expedition:
Cyclist: “Really? Are you sure?”
What you’re doing here is giving the officer an opportunity to provide you with some evidence. For example, the officer may reply with an answer that indicates where he or she was positioned when you were alleged to have broken the law. This information may be useful to you later in court: If the officer indicates that he (or she) was in a position that did not provide the officer with a clear view, you can question the officer about that at trial, in order to raise some doubt about whether the officer actually saw you do what you are accused of doing.
Similarly, if the officer says something that indicates uncertainty in the officer’s mind about the violation (for example, “Well, you must have______[fill in the blank]”), you can make a metal note of that uncertainty and question the officer about it at trial. As an example, I represented a cyclist who was injured by a driver, and was ticketed after a witness said that the cyclist “must have been” riding against traffic and running stop lights because “he came out of nowhere.” In fact, the witness did not actually see the cyclist until the moment of impact, and assumed that the cyclist “must have been” breaking the law. If the officer who is writing you a ticket indicates that he (or she) is making an assumption about what he (or she) saw, you will want to use that at trial to raise doubt about whether the officer actually saw you do what you are accused of doing.
Or suppose the officer says something like “Well, I saw a cyclist ______[fill in the blank], and you are the only cyclist here.” In order to prove that you violated the law, the officer is supposed to be able to positively identify you as the cyclist he (or she) observed breaking the law. If the officer’s case is based upon you being a cyclist, as opposed to you being the cyclist he saw breaking the law, you can raise doubt at trial about whether the officer actually saw YOU break the law.
But what if the officer is lying?
Now, a word of warning. Not every officer out there is honest. There is ample evidence that police officers routinely lie under oath to gain convictions. This does not mean that the officer who has stopped you is lying about you breaking the law. However, if you are absolutely certain that you did not do what the officer says you did, and the officer is absolutely certain that you did break the law, there are only two possibilities to explain the discrepancy: one of you is mistaken, or one of you is lying. And if you know with absolute certainty that you are not mistaken, and that you are not lying, then the officer is either mistaken or lying.
But at trial, you should not base your defense on an accusation that the officer is lying (the only exception to this would be if you have proof that the officer is lying—for example, if there is video evidence that proves the officer’s testimony is a lie). There are a couple of reasons for this.
First, the court is not going to listen favorably to a defense that “the officer is lying.” If you do make that your defense, you will probably anger the court, and you will probably be convicted. Why? Because the courts presume that the officer has no incentive to lie, and that you do have a powerful incentive to lie (you want to avoid paying your ticket).
Second, unless you have proof that the officer is lying, it may simply be a matter of the officer making a mistake. And unless you have proof that the officer is lying, that is where your best defense will always be—that the officer is mistaken on the facts, or on the law, or both. And that is the whole point of your own evidence gathering—you are looking for evidence to prove that the officer is mistaken.
Gather all the evidence you will need at trial
Now, I’ve been telling you how to coax information from the officer that you can use later at trial. But you don’t have to limit your evidence-gathering to what the officer is willing to say after you’ve been stopped. You should also make note of everything you can that might be evidence at trial. Where was the officer when the violation was alleged to have occurred? Where were you? Did the officer have a clear line of sight? What were traffic conditions like? Road conditions? Atmospheric conditions? Visibility? If you are alleged to have run a stop sign, was the stop sign visible, or concealed? Was the traffic light working, or not working? Take metal notes of everything, including what the officer said, and as soon as you can, write everything down.
Take photographs of the scene if your defense will be based on physical evidence, such as the lanes (or lack of lanes), traffic signs (or lack of traffic signs), and so on. If you think the traffic light is not working properly, contact the local government responsible for maintaining the traffic lights and ask for copies of the maintenance reports; in particular, look for evidence of how long the traffic signal cycle is supposed to be, and look for evidence of how sensitive the embedded loop sensors are supposed to be (if the loop sensors are not capable of detecting your bike, you may have a defense you can use at trial if you ran a red light after waiting fruitlessly for the light to change).
In short, gather any evidence you can that will be relevant to your defense at trial.
Speaking of lying…
Don’t even think about gathering false evidence for use at trial. One “creative” motorist who was stopped for running a stop sign took photos of a different intersection and submitted the photos as evidence at trial (his defense argument was that there was no stop sign at the intersection he was stopped at). The judge, who was familiar with both intersections, took one look at the photos and had the motorist arrested on the spot and charged with a criminal offense for submitting false evidence. DO NOT submit false evidence at your trial.
“May I see your license?”
Here’s an interesting conundrum. You don’t need a driver’s license to ride your bike, but in at least one state (California) you will need to present a driver’s license or its “functional equivalent” (a state ID, a Passport, or a military ID) if you are stopped for a violation and the officer asks you to produce ID. Failure to produce the requested ID can lead to a trip to jail. So can lying about your identity, and not just in California.
And the officer’s fishing expedition for evidence may continue here as well. If the officer asks about information on your driver’s license, he is still looking for evidence—for example, evidence that the information on your license is not up to date, which is another offense you can be ticketed for. Again, the best answers here are those that don’t incriminate you. If your license information is up to date, feel free to answer the officer’s question. If it is not up to date, have an explanation ready. Better yet, get your license up to date now and carry it, or other ID that law enforcement officers in your state accept, on your rides.
Give Yourself a Break
Give yourself a break and be polite. There are several reasons for this. The officer may just be planning to talk to you about the violation he witnessed (or thinks he witnessed); you don’t want to convince the officer to write you a ticket instead by being difficult. But even if the officer is planning on writing you a ticket, you still don’t want to be a difficult traffic stop. For one thing, you might be able to change the officer’s mind and get a verbal warning instead of a ticket. How do you do that? By asking. Politely. But there is one drawback to asking for a warning instead of a ticket—you risk saying something incriminating about your actions that can be used against you later in court. So if you do ask for a warning, be careful about what you say, unless you want your words to come back and haunt you later.
Even if the officer writes you a ticket, you want to remain polite. Why? Because the officer writes a lot of traffic tickets, and you don’t want to be the one who stands out in the officer’s mind. You don’t want to give the officer incentive to show up in court and testify against you on your trial date, and you don’t want the officer to remember you and everything that you did and said when your case goes to trial. So if the officer decides to write you a ticket, politely accept your ticket. Do not argue with the officer, do not treat the officer rudely, do not insult the officer. Just take your ticket and ride away to fight this battle another day.
And that is the key here. You want to fight this battle in the proper venue, which is the courtroom. The roadside is not a courtroom, and being combative with the officer will only anger the officer, which will only make it worse for you when your case goes to trial.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t disagree with the officer. If the officer says you broke the law, and you believe the officer is wrong, you can disagree with the officer, but the key here is to disagree politely. If the officer is unsure of the law, and you are polite and sure of the law, you may be able to persuade the officer that you did not violate the law.
But if the officer insists that you violated the law, despite your best efforts to convince him that you did not break the law, or if he doesn’t want to listen (the officer does not have an obligation to stand there and listen to your arguments, or worse, be lectured on the law) you may have to accept a choice between complying with the officer’s mistaken understanding of the law, or accepting a ticket and making your legal arguments later in traffic court.
So you just got a ticket
Because of the lingering effects a ticket can have on your life (raised insurance rates, a mark on your driving record, and so on) there are very few circumstances where it makes sense to just pay a ticket.
Now what do you do? Should you fight the ticket? Or should you just pay the ticket and move on? The answer to that depends on a number of factors. Consider the following questions: Were you caught red-handed breaking some traffic law? Did you break the law, but feel that there are some extenuating circumstances that would help a judge understand what happened? Did the officer make a mistake? Were you involved in a collision with another vehicle?
Now consider the effect a ticket can have on your life. A ticket does not mean that you are guilty. It is just a summons to appear in court and answer the charge against you. But if you are found guilty, you will likely be required to pay a fine that can range from a minimal fee to several hundred dollars or more. Additionally, a conviction on your driving record is virtually guaranteed to raise your insurance rates. And if you get ticketed too often, you can even lose your driver’s license. There’s more. Some employers ask to see the driving records of job applicants. And if you receive a ticket as a result of a traffic collision, you will be seen as the at-fault party by the other driver’s insurance company, regardless of who is actually at fault.
All of these issues are factors you should weigh in deciding what to do once you’ve been ticketed. Now let’s take a closer look at a few of these issues.
You were breaking the law and got caught
Let’s consider a common scenario: The cyclist who sees the stop sign but doesn’t see the police officer. Ignoring the sign, the cyclist rolls through. The officer pulls the cyclist over, and the cyclist is ticketed.
If you pay the ticket, it’s equivalent to a guilty plea and conviction. But if you decide to fight the ticket, you will be required to enter a not guilty plea and appear in court on your trial date. And here’s the problem—when you appear in court, the officer will be there as well, prepared to testify against you. If all you have to say in your defense is “I did not do what the officer says I did,” guess who the court will believe? Not you.
So should you just pay your fine if you know you are guilty? That is a decision that only you can make. However, you have other options, and there are a couple of reasons you may want to go to trial, which I will discuss below.
You may have broken the law, but there’s an explanation
Now let’s say that you rolled through that stop sign, but you didn’t see the sign. Let’s ask why—was it because you weren’t paying attention? If so, that won’t get you off. But what if it was because the sign was hidden behind something that blocked your view—a large truck for example, or foliage on a tree. Now you have a defense you can use at trial.
You were not breaking the law, but got ticketed anyway
I have seen this happen many times. Sometimes it happens because an officer is unfamiliar with the law. It also happens when officers are ordered to “crackdown” on cyclists. And perhaps worst of all, it can happen when a cyclist is involved in a traffic collision and there is confusion about who did what. For example, one cyclist whose injury case I handled was ticketed when an eyewitness said that the cyclist “came out of nowhere, so he must have been going the wrong way.” Or maybe the eyewitness just didn’t see the cyclist until the moment of impact, as is often the case in collisions. But when the cyclist, who was suffering from a concussion, was unable to tell his side of what had happened, he was the one ticketed, even though the driver was also suffering a medical emergency (the real cause of the collision) and could not explain what had happened either.
These tickets can be easy to beat. If you can demonstrate to the court that the officer is wrong on the law, or even on the facts of the case, you will likely win. But what if you were ticketed as a result of a traffic collision? If you don’t beat the ticket, you probably won’t be compensated for your injuries. The driver’s insurance company will stonewall you until the end of time. Or at least until the deadline for resolving the case has passed. So if you want to be compensated for your injuries (and expenses), fighting one of these unjust tickets is a must.
So should you just pay the ticket? Should you fight the ticket? Or something in between?
Because of the lingering effects a ticket can have on your life (raised insurance rates, a mark on your driving record, and so on) there are very few circumstances where it makes sense to just pay a ticket. If you were caught red-handed and you have no defense, and if your time is more valuable than the fine, then paying the ticket might make sense to you. You might also consider saving yourself the embarrassment of having the officer’s video recording of your obvious violation of the law played back in court after you just denied breaking the law.
But there are still some sound reasons to contest the ticket, even if you know you are guilty, and if you want to keep the traffic ticket off your record, then you will either need to fight the ticket, or alternatively, go to traffic school for cyclists (if one is available in your town).
If the violation is a misdemeanor, you are facing criminal charges and should give very serious consideration to hiring a lawyer. And if the violation is a felony, it is absolutely vital for you to hire a lawyer to defend against the charge.
Now what if you did break the law, but there were extenuating circumstances? You should fight the ticket. Similarly, if you were not breaking the law but got a ticket anyway, you should fight the ticket. Finally, if you were ticketed as a result of a traffic collision, you must fight the ticket if you hope to be compensated for your injuries and expenses.
The Next Step: How to handle your traffic ticket
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 rather than 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.
Now let’s talk about how to handle your traffic ticket. When the officer writes a ticket, he is making a “non-custodial arrest.” This means that instead of placing you under arrest and taking you to jail, the officer is giving you a summons (the citation or “ticket”) to appear in court and answer the charge against you. In some jurisdictions, the officer may have the authority to actually place you under arrest and take you to jail for a traffic violation, or give you a ticket in lieu of taking you to jail, at the officer’s discretion. In other jurisdictions, the officer may only have the authority to cite you (write a citation or “ticket”) for a traffic violation.
But regardless of the officer’s authority, the ticket is your summons to appear in court, and your signature is your promise to appear in court and answer the charge against you (and that is why you are required to sign the ticket). The ticket does NOT mean that you are guilty. But it does mean that you must appear in court. Therefore, if you do not respond to the ticket, or if you do schedule a court date but you skip your court appearance, a bench warrant will be issued; later, if you are stopped for another violation, this bench warrant will appear when the officer searches your record, and you will likely be arrested.
So you do not want to ignore the ticket. Once you’ve been ticketed, you need to respond to it, either by paying the ticket, or by appearing in court to contest the charge against you.
What if you don’t want to fight the ticket?
Suppose you just want to pay your ticket and be done with it? If you pay your fine, that is usually the end of the matter (unless you are facing very serious charges that bring additional penalties, like jail time).
However, you should be aware of one alternative that may be available to you. In some jurisdictions, cyclists can have their ticket dismissed after attending traffic school. This is an option that is commonly available to drivers, but is only available to cyclists in a handful of cities, including Portland, OR; Santa Cruz, CA; Huntington Beach, CA; and Manhattan, NY. Traffic school for cyclists is also available for cyclists at some universities, including UC Davis in Davis, CA, and Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, CA. If traffic school for cyclists is available in your town, you should consider choosing this option rather than paying your ticket.
Here’s why: Depending on the jurisdiction you are riding in and the offense you are charged with, one ticket can easily add up to several hundred dollars or more. And that’s not the end of it—a ticket is virtually guaranteed to raise your insurance rates, can lead to the loss of your driver’s license in some jurisdictions if you rack up enough tickets, and can even put a damper on your job prospects if an employer wants to see your driving record.
OK, but what if Traffic School isn’t Available?
If Traffic School isn’t available in your town, you will either have to pay your fine, or go to court and fight your ticket. But think about that. When a driver gets a traffic ticket, the driver has some options—fight the ticket, pay the ticket, or go to traffic school. If the driver chooses to go to traffic school, he or she pays a fee to attend a class, and after attending the class, the ticket is typically dismissed. This means that your insurance rates won’t be affected, your driver’s license won’t be affected, and your driving record won’t be affected. Not a bad outcome at all, especially if you are guilty as charged.
Technically, the traffic school is a pre-trial diversion program. This means that instead of going to trial, you go to “traffic school.” The benefit for you is that you avoid most of the negatives associated with getting a ticket. The benefit for the court is a lot of cases that would otherwise take more of the court’s time are diverted to traffic school. The benefit for society is additional safety education for drivers who have received a citation. Everybody wins.
But when you are on your bike and get the exact same ticket that the driver got, guess what? You may not have the option of going to traffic school. Does that seem fair to you? Why should drivers get a break, and not cyclists? A cyclist doesn’t even present the same danger on the road as a driver, and yet because traffic school is not typically an option available for cyclists, the cyclist may actually face a greater consequence for a traffic violation than a driver ticketed for the exact same offense.
If this seems unfair to you, and you would like to see traffic school available for cyclists in your town, think about taking this issue on as a bicycle advocacy project for your town. A good place to start would be with your local bicycle advocacy group. They may already be working on a campaign to develop a class. Or maybe they like the idea, but haven’t taken any concrete steps to get a class developed. Either way, ask if they need some help.
If you are starting from scratch, you will probably need the approval of the local court that is responsible for handling traffic cases to develop a bicycle traffic diversion program. It can also help you make your case to the court if you can get buy-in from your local police department and other local officials. Let them know that the goal of these programs is to change behavior through education, rather than punishment. In Portland, Oregon, a traffic citation diversion class has been available since 2007. A cyclist who has been ticketed for certain bicycle-related violations can choose to attend the two-hour class, pay a small fee, and have the ticket dismissed.
Talk to bicycle advocacy groups in cities that already have a bicycle traffic school to get their insights into getting a program started. With some persuasion, and perseverance, your town may be the next town to start a bicycle traffic school.
But what if you do want to fight your ticket?
As I said above, a ticket does not mean that you are guilty of the charge against you. Law enforcement officers sometimes make mistakes, just like everybody else. An officer may be mistaken on the facts of the case; this means that what the officer thinks happened did not actually happen. Or an officer can be mistaken on the law of the case; this means that the officer misunderstands what the law is saying, or is looking at the wrong law. It may even be that the officer is wrong on both the facts and the law. Or maybe you broke the law, technically, but there’s a good, reasonable explanation for what happened.
Contact the Court
The first thing you need to do is contact the court clerk by the date specified on the ticket. Tell the clerk that you want to contest the ticket; you will be given further instructions on when and where to appear.
Making your Plea
Some jurisdictions may require you to appear in court to enter your plea. Other jurisdictions allow you to enter your plea with the court clerk when you indicate that you will be contesting the charge against you. If you are contesting the ticket (rather than paying it), when you are asked “How do you plead?” the only answer that the court wants to hear is “guilty” or “not guilty.” The court does not want to hear your defense, or an explanation of what happened, or anything else. Just “guilty” or “not guilty.” If you say “guilty,” you will be convicted and fined. If you say “not guilty,” a date will be set for your trial.
But note: at your trial, you will probably be asked “how do you plead?” again. After you have made your plea, the prosecution will present its case, and then you will be able to present your defense. So if the court asks you to present your defense after you have made your plea, that means you are at trial.
Trial By Written Declaration
Some jurisdictions allow you to make your defense by a written declaration. If you have this option, you can try this route first. In a trial by written declaration, you send in a written statement of the facts of the case (telling the court what happened), and your defense (your explanation of why you are not guilty). The prosecution sends in their written declaration stating the facts and why you are guilty. The court then sends you its decision.
The reason this is a good option for you is because it gives you “two bites at the apple.” If the court rules in your favor, you are not guilty, and the ticket is dismissed, all without having to go to court. But if you are found guilty, you can request a trial in court, and have a second chance to make your case.
Making your Defense
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 rather than 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 the facts of what happened, and your job will be to find weak spots in the officer’s testimony (you will also state your own facts of what happened, before you begin poking holes in the officer’s testimony). For example, was the officer in a position to actually see what happened? Did the officer consider any evidence that may exist that contradicts the officer’s conclusion?
But even if the officer is right on the facts, the officer may be wrong on the law. This is where you can win simply by bringing the court’s attention to what the law says (remember to bring copies of the relevant laws to submit to the court).
Now let’s revisit the three “lawbreakers” I discussed earlier: The cyclist who was breaking the law and got caught, the cyclist who was breaking the law but has a reasonable explanation, and the cyclist who was not breaking the law but got ticketed anyway.
You were breaking the law and got caught
If you were breaking the law and got caught red-handed, your options for presenting a defense 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, 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 even show up in court on the day of your trial. If this happens, the judge should immediately dismiss your ticket; if not, ask the judge to dismiss the ticket. But even if the officer does show up for trial, 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 (and if the fine will be a financial hardship, let the judge know). You might even consider asking the judge to send you to bicycle traffic school, if one exists in your town.
You may have broken the law, but there’s a reasonable explanation
Suppose you run a stop sign and get ticketed, but the reason you ran the stop sign was 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 there was a stop sign. Be sure to bring photographs to present as evidence at trial (but remember, do NOT fake any of your evidence, or you may find yourself facing criminal charges).
Now consider a different scenario—you were ticketed for riding on the sidewalk in a business district, but the reason you were on the sidewalk is you swerved to avoid a right hook and ended up on the sidewalk. 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 immediately after your evasive maneuver.
Both of these scenarios are examples of a “mistake of fact” defense—a “reasonable explanation” for why you broke the law. Now let’s take a look at an explanation that will NOT be considered reasonable, and will NOT work as a “mistake of fact” defense. Suppose that you run a stop sign, get ticketed, and explain in court that you don’t believe that cyclists should have to stop at stop signs, that you safely ran the stop sign, and that the “Idaho Law” should be the law in your state. Although you might consider that to be a reasonable explanation of what happened, the court will not. After listening to as much of your defense as it cares to, the court will find you guilty, and order you to pay the fine. The lesson here is that a “reasonable explanation” of what happened is not what you consider to be reasonable, but what the court will consider to be reasonable.
You were not breaking the law, but got ticketed anyway
Sometimes, the officer is just wrong on the law. It happens. Or sometimes, the officer or an eyewitness makes a mistake on the facts of what happened. Either way, you may get a ticket. As I said, your job will be to poke holes in the prosecution’s case. If the officer’s facts are wrong, poke holes in that with 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.
Appearing in court
When you are in court, you are in the judge’s world. Most judges will try to be fair to you, but you are expected to follow the rules of the court, so there are a few things you should know.
First, do not be late. Period. When your trial date arrives, you must be in court, on time, and prepared to go to trial. If you are late, you will very likely find that a bench warrant has been issued for your arrest, and it is unlikely that you will be allowed to proceed to trial.
Second, you must arrive in court appropriately groomed and attired. This means that you must be cleanly groomed and wearing clean, appropriate business attire. If you ignore your grooming and attire, you run the risk of angering the judge and losing your case. You may not agree with any of that, but that is how the court works. Like I said, the courtroom is the judge’s world, and you are expected to follow the court’s rules. Remember that you are in court to defend yourself against the prosecution’s charges; you are not in court to strike a blow for your liberty to express yourself in your personal appearance.
Third, you will have a limited amount of time to present your case. Use it wisely. You may feel outraged about your ticket. You may feel that it is unjust. You may feel that you are upholding the rights of all cyclists and that this is the case of the century.
But look at it from the court’s perspective for a moment. You are one of dozens of cases the court will hear that day, and hundreds the court will hear that week. From the court’s perspective, this is not the case of the century; it’s just another traffic case on a docket that is too full. Therefore, you will be allotted a limited amount of time in which to make your defense. And because your time is limited, you will need to plan ahead and determine what your best arguments are. You do not need to argue every minor detail. Instead, decide what points MUST be made to win your case, and make those points. Forget about minor details that don’t affect the outcome of your case—they will only confuse the court, and waste valuable time that you will need to make your important points. For example, if you rolled through a stop sign that was concealed by foliage, you need to present evidence that the stop sign was concealed by foliage; you don’t need to waste time arguing about whether you were going 10 MPH or 15 MPH.
Fourth, mind your manners. Address the judge as “your honor,” and be courteous to the officer who is testifying against you.
The bottom line is that you want the court to view you as a likeable, credible defendant. By being on time, prepared, appropriately groomed and attired, and courteous, you are allowing the court to get past these extraneous issues and focus on your arguments.
Presenting your case
When your trial begins, let the court know that you are present. You will be asked to step forward towards the bench. If the court asks how you plead, state your plea. The prosecution will then make its case, beginning with the officer’s testimony. After the prosecution has presented its case, it will be time to present your defense. Begin by introducing yourself to the court, and telling the court what your argument will be (for example, “I will argue that I am not guilty of________[fill in the blank] because________[fill in the blank].”
After you inform the court what your argument will be, make your argument. You may question the officer, you may introduce evidence, and you may argue why the officer is wrong and you are right. If you question the officer, your goal should be to get the officer to say something that will help you undermine the officer’s case. For example, you might ask the officer where the officer was when you were alleged to have violated the law. You might then follow up with evidence that proves the officer could not actually see you from that position. (On the other hand, if you simply ask the officer if he could see you from where he was positioned, he might state “yes.”)
Your goal in questioning the officer is not to help him reinforce his case against you; instead, your goal is to get the officer to reinforce your own argument. This is all part of poking holes in the officer’s testimony. If the officer is wrong on the law, bring a copy of the law and introduce it into evidence. If the appellate courts have already ruled in your favor on this issue, bring a copy of the appellate court ruling showing that the officer’s interpretation of the law is wrong.
When you present your defense, make sure that you are mindful of your time, and present your most important arguments. Your goal is to finish your defense before the court cuts you off. Don’t rush through your defense, but don’t waste valuable time on unimportant details either.
You are not limited to one argument. You can argue more than one point. You are even allowed to present “alternative defenses.” An alternative defense is a defense theory that is different from one of your other defense theories—and the two defense theories don’t even have to be consistent with each other. For example, you argue:
First defense: “I did not do X, and here is why.”
Alternative defense: “And even if I did do X, I did not break the law, because of Y.”
After you have presented your defense, summarize for the court what your argument was. Then ask the court to dismiss the charge.
Now let’s recap. When your trial begins, introduce yourself to the court. Tell the court that you are not guilty. The officer will testify as to what he or she saw. Then it will be your turn to present your defense. Tell the court what your argument will be. Then make your case about why your argument is correct by poking holes in the officer’s testimony and presenting your own evidence as to why the officer is wrong on the facts, the law, or both. After you have made your argument, summarize for the court what your argument was. Then ask the court to dismiss the charge against you. The reason you want to state what your argument will be, then make your argument, then summarize your argument, is to remind the court of your argument every step of the way. You want to lead the court to what you believe the correct verdict is—“not guilty.”
After you have presented your defense, the court will render its verdict. If you are found “not guilty,” congratulations! You have just successfully defended yourself. If you are found “guilty,” you will likely be ordered to pay a fine. If the fine will present a financial hardship, you can tell the court and ask for a reduced fine (there is no guarantee that the court will reduce your fine, but it doesn’t hurt to ask).
Is this the case of the century, or just another traffic ticket?
Now let’s revisit that “case of the century” perspective that we talked about earlier—is this an important case, or just another traffic ticket? It depends. From a subjective perspective, this case may be very important to you. But from an objective perspective, are the underlying legal issues in this case important? If you are concerned about the precedent-setting value of your case, the decision in your case has absolutely no value as binding precedent. Zero. Nada. Zip. You are on trial, and trial verdicts do not set binding precedent for any other case.
But there is a caveat. “Binding precedent” means that lower courts are bound to follow the decisions made by a higher court above it. So a trial court, for example, must follow the decisions of the appellate court above it, as well as the decisions of the supreme court. But what about persuasive precedent? If a trial court makes a decision in a case, can another trial court follow that decision, even though it’s not required to follow that decision, if it finds that decision persuasive? Yes. And sometimes, that means that one bad decision can lead to another bad decision.
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So while your verdict at trial will not result in binding precedent, there is always the chance that the decision in your case will be persuasive precedent to another trial court.
The short-term downside of a bad decision at trial is that you will have to pay a traffic fine; the long-term downside of a bad decision at trial is that it can be persuasive precedent for another court in another trial. And even if you win, the officer who gave you a ticket can still go out tomorrow and write another cyclist a ticket for the exact same offense on the exact same set of facts, because the decision at your trial is not binding precedent. Likewise, another judge in another courtroom can reach a different decision than the judge in your trial for the same reason—because the decision at your trial is not binding precedent.
So, returning to the question, is this the case of the century, or just another traffic ticket? It’s possible that the underlying legal issue in your case is important. But you have to weigh that against the fact that the decision in your case may or may not have value as persuasive precedent, and has no value as binding precedent unless and until you appeal your guilty verdict to an appellate court.
And that’s where you need to be careful, because your good intentions can easily result in a bad outcome. There’s even a saying in law—bad facts make bad law. If the appellate court does not like the fact patterns of your case (for example, if the court strongly disagrees with what you were doing), there’s a good chance that the court will rule against you, and now you will have established bad precedent, where before there was no precedent. This happened in Oregon, when a cyclist taking part in a Critical Mass ride was ticketed for impeding traffic. On appeal of his guilty verdict, the Appellate Court established case law precedent that, the statutory language notwithstanding, a cyclist is impeding traffic when he is not traveling at the same speed as motor vehicle traffic.
On the other hand, it’s also possible to establish good precedent. This happened in Ohio, when a cyclist who was ticketed for impeding traffic while riding uphill successfully established precedent that a cyclist is not impeding traffic when the cyclist is traveling as fast as he (or she) can.
As they say, bad facts make bad law. Therefore, if the facts of your case might help make bad case law, it’s probably better to pay the fine if you are found guilty than to cement bad precedent into the law. And if the facts of your case suggest that good precedent might be established, it’s vitally important to hire a competent, savvy appellate attorney who understands the issues involved. Given the expense involved in appeals, and the difficulty of finding a case with a fact pattern that will yield the hoped-for precedent, most citations will probably not result in a trip to appellate court, and a successful establishment of good case law.
Nobody likes getting a ticket. Seeing the red and blue lights flashing behind you is one of those moments of heart-in-your-throat dread for most people. And yet almost everybody will be ticketed at some point in their lifetime. If you’d like to reduce your chances of getting ticketed, the best way is to ride lawfully. However, riding lawfully is not a guarantee that you won’t get ticketed. Everybody makes mistakes, including you, and including the officer who pulls you over. Still, if an officer does make a mistake and tickets you, riding lawfully will be your best defense when you go to trial. And regardless of the circumstances, if you do get ticketed, you now have the information you need to handle your own traffic ticket.
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