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.
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.