No one wants to see red and blue lights flashing in their rearview mirror while they’re driving. But it happened. You got pulled over and received a traffic ticket.
Sure, you could pay your fine and move on. But what if you feel that you didn’t break the law, or you don’t deserve the ticket?
In the U.S., you’re entitled to a vigorous defense against any criminal allegation. And at the end of the day, that’s what a traffic ticket is: An allegation that you violated a traffic law. You’re entitled to fight a traffic ticket — but how?
If you’ve received a ticket and you want to contest it, the process can be confusing, overwhelming, and intimidating. But with the right knowledge and preparation, you can be ready to defend yourself. Read on to learn how.
What is a Traffic Ticket?
A traffic ticket is a notice given to a motorist by a law enforcement officer. It acts as an accusation that the motorist has committed at least one crime by violating a traffic law.
What Are the Different Types of Traffic Tickets?
There are many different types of traffic tickets, but the three most common kinds in California are parking tickets, infractions, and misdemeanors.
- Parking tickets are issued to motorists who violate parking rules, and are not entered into the court record. If you receive a parking ticket, it will have a fine and a due date for paying. If you don’t pay by the due date, the fine amount may be increased. Having unpaid parking tickets can prevent you from renewing your vehicle’s registration. If you receive a parking ticket that you believe was in error, you don’t have to go to court — you can request an administrative hearing to appeal it.
- Infractions are the most common tickets issued for “standard” and minor traffic violations, such as speeding or running a red light. When you receive an infraction, you’ll typically be asked to sign the back of the ticket, which acts as an acknowledgement that you’ve been given a notice to appear. This means that you agree to either pay the fine (also known as bail) and any associated fees by your stated court date, or appear in court on that date to contest the ticket.
- Misdemeanors are more serious criminal offenses, like driving without a license or driving under the influence. If you’re charged with a misdemeanor, you may be arrested or you may be asked to sign a notice to appear. This depends on the discretion of the law enforcement officer who issues your ticket. If you receive a misdemeanor traffic ticket, you cannot simply plead guilty and pay the fine. You must appear in court, where you can work with the prosecutor on a plea bargain, have your case dismissed, or proceed to a trial.
In addition to these three types of traffic tickets, California has felony traffic offenses on its books, including reckless driving that causes serious injury to someone other than the driver. Felonies are serious criminal charges, and penalties can include hefty fines, probation, and/or jail or prison time. If you’re charged with a felony traffic violation, you have a right to represent yourself in court; however, due to the serious nature of this type of charge, it’s strongly recommended that you consult with a qualified attorney.
How Do You Get a Traffic Ticket?
If a law enforcement officer has evidence that you violated a traffic law (either because they witnessed you committing the violation while you were driving, or they have other evidence, such as from a speeding radar or red light camera), they can issue you a ticket.
What Are the Penalties That Come With Getting a Traffic Ticket?
Traffic tickets in California come with fines (also called bail). Even for a simple infraction, the fines can be in excess of $500, and local authorities can add additional fees that drive the price of a ticket even higher. For misdemeanor traffic tickets, fines are typically higher, and there may be other penalties such as probation, license suspension, or even jail time.
California also uses a point system for driver’s licenses called the Negligent Operator Treatment System (NOTS). Under the NOTS system, you accumulate points on your license every time you are convicted of a traffic violation, and can be considered a “negligent operator” if you accumulate:
- 4 or more points in a 12-month period,
- 6 or more points in a 24-month period,
- 8 or more points in a 36-month period.
If you accumulate enough points to be considered negligent, you may face suspension or revocation of your driver’s license.
And while getting a single point on your license isn’t enough to be considered a negligent operator, it is enough for insurance companies to increase your premiums, sometimes by a substantial amount. Most infractions come with one point on your license, and in addition to the fine and fees, costs for increased insurance rates over time can add up to thousands of dollars.
If you receive an infraction that would normally add one point to your license, you may be able to attend traffic school to mask the point. This doesn’t remove it from your driving record, but it prevents insurance companies from seeing it, which can help mitigate the penalties from a simple infraction.
How to Fight a Traffic Ticket
The best way to fight a traffic ticket is to not get one in the first place — stay educated and up-to-date on traffic laws, practice defensive driving, and avoid committing violations.
If you do receive a traffic ticket and decide to fight it, remember that no matter what, you shouldn’t lie to defend yourself. Your best defense (and the one most likely to help you get out of the ticket) is truthfully proving that either you didn’t break the law in the first place, or that you did so for a justifiable reason.
What To Do During the Traffic Stop
You can start preparing to fight a ticket during the traffic stop itself, if you get pulled over by a law enforcement officer. Here’s what to do:
- Ask for evidence. Ask the officer what method they used to determine that you broke the law. Write down what they say, with as much detail as possible, so you don’t forget.
- Say as little as possible. The cliche’d crime show line is true: Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. During the traffic stop, don’t speak unless you have to. Make sure you don’t admit to breaking the law, or try to justify your actions.
- Be forgettable. In addition to saying as little as possible, be polite and as unremarkable as possible. If the officer can’t remember details about the traffic stop, they may not be able to answer questions about it in court, which will weaken their case.
- Write everything down. As soon as the officer leaves, write down every detail you can remember about the incident. Make sure to include the time, date, and location of the stop. Don’t start writing while the officer is still present, as this might make you stand out so they remember you later.
What to Do to Prepare to Contest a Ticket
When you receive your ticket, it should include the date for your first court appearance, where you will typically appear to plead not guilty when you plan to contest the ticket. After pleading not guilty, you will receive a date for a trial before a judge. There are several things you can do before your trial to prepare to defend yourself.
Check the Ticket for Accuracy
If there is any incorrect identifying information on the ticket (such as if the officer writes the ticket for a different model or color of car than what you drive), it may be grounds for having the ticket dismissed.
Research the Codes
The ticket should also state the exact vehicle code you’re accused of violating. Look up the full text of the law, and break it down to determine how it applies to your situation. Look especially closely for any portion of the code that involves the law enforcement officer’s personal judgment. For example, if you’re cited for an “unsafe” movement, you may be able to argue that the officer made an incorrect judgment and your move was, in fact, safe.
Find Out the Exact Procedure for Contesting Your Ticket
Typically, the ticket itself will contain instructions. It should also have contact information for your court in case you have questions or need more information.
In addition to everything you wrote down after the traffic stop, gather any other evidence that may be available. Take photos and videos from the scene. Get statements from witnesses. Find out if any devices were used to determine you violated the law, and learn about how they work and possible defenses against using them as evidence.
Decide if the Evidence Supports Your Case
Once you’ve gathered evidence, you can decide if you have a legitimate case for defending yourself against the ticket. One thing to note is that not knowing or understanding the law is never an acceptable defense — this argument will likely result in a guilty ruling against you.
These defenses tend to be successful against traffic tickets, provided there’s evidence to back them up:
- The officer’s subjective conclusion was wrong. If the ticket required the law enforcement officer to make a subjective judgment that your actions were unreasonable or unsafe, you could argue that you were, in fact, being safe. Bring evidence that would support a finding that you were driving safely — for example, good weather, clear visibility, slow driving speeds, or well maintained safety equipment on your vehicle.
- The officer made an incorrect observation. Many tickets are issued because a law enforcement officer witnesses a violation occurring. You can try to argue that their observation is wrong, but try not to make the ticket into a case of your word against the officer’s. Instead, look for evidence that their observation was obstructed, like if they were far away or there was a hill, tree, or another vehicle in their line of sight that could have prevented them from seeing you clearly.
- You broke the law due to a “mistake of fact.” In most cases, you should never admit that you broke the law when you’re contesting a ticket. But if you can prove you did so accidentally because of a “mistake of fact” that was outside of your control, your ticket may be dismissed. In other words, you need evidence that you made an error in an honest and reasonable way; for example, if you failed to stop at a stop sign because a fallen tree branch made it impossible for you to see it.
- The violation was necessary to avoid greater harm. Most traffic laws can be broken without consequence if there’s a legitimate emergency. You can defend yourself against your ticket if you have evidence that you broke the law in order to avoid a greater harm; for example, if you drove without a license because you needed to transport a seriously ill or injured person to a medical facility.
If your evidence proves any of these four defenses in your case, you should go to court to contest your ticket.
How to Contest a Ticket via Trial by Written Declaration
In some cases, it’s possible to pursue a trial by written declaration. This is a way of contesting a traffic ticket in writing, rather than appearing in-person in court.
To see if trial by written declaration is an option, contact the court shown on your ticket. If it’s available for you, they’ll give you instructions on how to proceed. You’ll need to fill out some paperwork and submit it to the court along with a written statement and whatever evidence you’ve collected.
The officer who issued your ticket similarly submits a written statement along with all of their evidence. A judge then reviews both sides and issues a ruling in writing, which you will receive by mail. If you don’t agree with the judge’s ruling, you can appeal it, which requires appearing in court to present your case in person.
How to Contest a Ticket in Court
If you contest your ticket in court, there’s a small chance that the officer who issued the ticket won’t show up to the court date, which often results in dismissal of the ticket. This is by no means guaranteed, though, and you shouldn’t count on it. Instead, prepare for your court date as thoroughly as possible.
Here’s what to do:
- Delay your court hearing. If the court allows you to delay your hearing date, take that option. This gives you more time to prepare your case, and increases the likelihood that the officer won’t be able to recall details when questioned.
- Appear on time. Don’t be late to court. If your case is called and you aren’t there yet, you may be found guilty by default. For some offenses, this may even result in a charge for Failure to Appear.
- Present your defense. When called by the judge, present your case, including all the evidence you’ve gathered. Try to stick to short, factual statements.
- Ask your questions. You will be allowed to question the law enforcement office who issued your ticket, and any witnesses. Try to ask questions that back up your evidence or support your case.
Contesting a Traffic Ticket: FAQ
Here are a few more commonly asked questions about fighting a traffic ticket in California.
Do You Have to Go to Court to Fight a Traffic Ticket?
If your court gives you the option of trial by written declaration, you can present your defense in writing. However, other than that, you have to go to court to fight a traffic ticket.
What Should You Wear to Fight a Traffic Ticket?
When you go to court, you should dress neatly and respectfully. If you’re fighting a traffic ticket, you want to look credible and responsible, so dress in a way that matches that.
Clean, well-fighting jeans, khakis, or slacks with a collared shirt and clean shoes is usually and acceptable outfit for any party at traffic court.
Should You Hire an Attorney to Fight a Traffic Ticket?
This depends. On one hand, an attorney brings experience, knowledge, and expertise of the court and traffic laws that can help you build a stronger case. On the other hand, hiring a traffic attorney can be more expensive than the fines associated with many infractions.
You always have the right to either represent yourself or hire an attorney. The choice is ultimately up to you.
Do You Have to Pay Fines for Traffic Tickets?
If you fight your ticket and are found not guilty, you will not have to pay the fine.
If you are found guilty, you do have to pay the fine. Sometimes you’ll be required to pay immediately; sometimes a judge may give you a later due date, especially if you argue that you have limited financial means to pay the fine.
Can You Just Ignore a Traffic Ticket?
No. Ignoring a ticket can result in increased fines, suspension of your license, and even a warrant for your arrest.
What About Out-of-State Tickets?
Almost all states have an agreement to share traffic ticket information with one another. If you are issued a traffic ticket in a state different from where you live, you still have to pay it. Failure to do so can result in all the penalties listed above.
What to Do If You’re Found Guilty
If you go to court to fight a traffic ticket and the judge finds you guilty, all hope is not lost!
Yes, you’ll have to pay the fines and fees associated with the ticket. But if you were convicted of an infraction that resulted in one point on your driver’s license, you can ask the judge to allow you to go to traffic school to mask the point. This doesn’t remove it from your driving record, but it does hide it from your insurance company, so you won’t have to pay for increased premiums in addition to the fine and fees from your ticket.
If the judge agrees, he or she will set a completion deadline for you to finish traffic school, pass the final exam, and submit your results to the court. Read our post on how to find the best traffic school and how much is traffic school in California.
Take all the hassle out of the process with online traffic school, where you can complete the course and exam at your own pace from your own device. With Best Online Traffic School, your completion record will be automatically sent to your court and the DMV as soon as you pass your exam and pay. We’ll even follow up with the court and make sure your case gets closed (for a small additional fee).
Ready to do traffic school the fastest, convenient, and affordable way? Get started today.