You and the in-laws are settled on the couch, in front of the big-screen, for the big game, when your brother-in-law pipes up and says, “Man, I was doing 60 down Main yesterday and this cop stopped me but I was smooth and I got out of the ticket. ” You, on the other hand, got stopped on Thursday during 50 and you got a ticket. Did you just get the jerk cop and your brother-in-law got the cool dude or is the overweight, out-of-work guy sitting there really that smooth? (Honestly, he probably got a ticket, too, and won’t fess up to it.)
Most people really know very little about traffic tickets and the process of getting one. First of all, in nearly all states, a traffic violation is an infraction not a crime. There are exceptions. For example, Driving Under The Influence is a criminal offense in any of our 50 states. But, for the most part, an infraction, by law, gives police officers discretion as to whether or not they write a citation. There are, actually, two things an officer can write. He can write a Warning Citation or a Moving Citation. A “Warner” as we call it contains all the information of a “Mover” but it is filed or entered into a database where it remains rather than being sent on to traffic court. Unless you receive another violation for the same thing there are no further consequences. A Moving Citation requires that you pay a fine and/or appear in traffic court.
The thought that a cop usually has his mind made up before leaving his vehicle is, as a general rule, true. His decision, at that time, may be based upon factors like how flagrantly you committed the violation. Were you driving 38 in a 35 or were you driving 50 in a 35 mph speed zone? Was it dangerous? Did you fail to stop completely at a stop sign and almost hit a car? Keep in mind, however, that an officer’s mind can be changed and, usually, for the worse. We were taught in the academy to either lecture a driver or write him a ticket but don’t make him sit there and listen to you if you are also going to give him a ticket. An officer can approach a vehicle planning to issue a verbal or written warning to the driver but, rather than shut up and listen to the officer, the driver’s attitude can quickly escalate that warning to a full blown traffic citation and, in some states, the officer can require that the driver appear in court.
Sometimes the officer writes a secret code or letter on the back of the citation that means the driver’s attitude was very poor and a judge can take that into consideration. If your infraction has put you or anyone else in danger you will get a ticket and a good attitude will go along way for not making the situation worse but, sometimes, an officer just wants you to listen to him tell you why you should not be doing what you are doing. He wants to see some contrition on your part and for you to say you don’t intend to do it again. A good attitude may not get you out of a ticket but it sure won’t get you into one that you weren’t going to get. By the way, you have every right to ask the officer what he stopped you for.
Once you have received a ticket, if you live in a state where points are assessed against your license and you were courteous to the officer, it might pay to set up a court date. Get there early and ask to talk to the city attorney. In many cities and towns (and especially overworked urban communities), you can talk with the city attorney and ask if he would consider reducing the charge. Often, to prevent having to set a court appearance, when the court docket is full, the city attorney will allow you to plead to a charge that assesses fewer points or even no points against your driving record. If he refuses, you have lost nothing.
Remember, the law says that driving is a privilege, not a right. Drive safely for yourself, your family and others, but if you should get pulled over, the best defense is a courtesy interaction with the police officer.