There is a lot of advice out there for drivers who plan to challenge a traffic ticket and face a judge at trial. Most recommendations are sound, such as dressing appropriately and showing up early. There are more specific behaviors that can also be beneficial. A judge’s role at traffic court is to determine what is true and whether someone is innocent or guilty. Good behavior cannot substitute for facts, but in situations where the judge must use his/her best judgement, putting one’s best foot forward can offer a significant advantage to a driver.
Here are some tips for how to behave at traffic court that can give off the best impression.
- Avoid talking too much to the clerk (or anyone else). A good piece of advice that comes up often is to be polite to the court clerk. This is a great idea. However, it is important not to get too chatty. A driver should walk in, check in, and not make idle talk with the clerk. He/she has a job to do and is likely very busy. Too much talking, no matter how polite, can be irritating and potentially as bad as being rude.
- Pay attention to the opening remarks. If a driver is clearly daydreaming or otherwise seems unfocused during the opening remarks of the trial, the judge is going to be biased against him/her right from the beginning. Really, it’s critical that one pay attention during the entire trial.
- Skip the jokes. Some drivers try cracking jokes and being humorous in traffic court. It’s unlikely this will lighten the mood or win over a judge. Traffic court judges are very busy, often hearing 40 to 50 cases per day. Also, a person who attempts to be funny could come off as not taking their traffic ticket matter seriously. Remember: a person only goes to traffic court if he/she has been accused of breaking the law, and that is no laughing matter.
- Ask good questions. Any questions one asks of the judge or officer at trial must be good, factual questions. If the judge perceives a line of questioning to be aimless, baseless or desperate, he/she may stop the inquiry for the sake of time.
- Be polite to the officer. Many drivers perceive the cop who issued the ticket as their “opponent” or someone who has wronged them. This attitude, if apparent in court, can make a driver sound belligerent, defensive, or sometimes just plain mean. This will not go over well with a traffic court judge, who often works closely with police on traffic matters and may have a rapport with a specific officer. Instead, be polite, and recognize that the officer is almost always just doing his/her job and is not likely to “have it in for” the driver.
- Call the officer “officer.” It’s common advice to call the judge, “Your Honor” but many forget to refer to the cop as “officer.”
- Let the judge handle a difficult officer. Sometimes the officer can be nasty or rude to the driver during traffic court. If that happens, it is best to let the judge handle it. A judge does not want to see a bad attitude from the cop any more than he/she wants it from a driver. It slows down proceedings and make a stressful job that much more stressful, so most judges won’t tolerate it. Further, it makes the officer look bad, which can make the driver look good by contrast (if he/she keeps their cool).
- Don’t talk back. Beyond just being respectful to the judge or officer, be sure not to interrupt or talk back. Let those who are speaking finish speaking. Then, when given an opportunity to speak, address any concerns or discrepancies in the statements made.
- Be careful using photographs. Many drivers bring photos as evidence in their case. This is OK, but keep in mind that officers (and possibly the judges too) will know the area quite well. Don’t waste time trying to photoshop or alter images to make one look innocent. If the officer can tell by looking that the photo has been altered the judge will throw them out and the driver will end up looking bad. Also, be sure to bring in the person who took the photos (if it wasn’t the driver).
- Keep the kids at home. It understandable that some people may have a hard time finding another person to care for their kids so he/she can go to traffic court. However, even the best-behaved kids can get bored and antsy and start acting out, and this will reflect poorly on the driver/parent.
- Children are not witnesses. Testifying at court is difficult enough for adults. A judge is going to scrutinize every aspect of the testimony in detail. Asking a child to endure that kind of questioning is just awful. Moreover, a judge is not likely to take testimony of a child seriously, depending on the age. Again, leave the kids at home.
- Remember that traffic court is not the DMV. If a driver has grievance with an administrative action or other issue with the DMV, it should be taken up with the DMV or the court system directly (by filing a grievance), not the judge. Even the Traffic Violations Bureau (TVB), which is a judicial branch of the DMV, is separate from the administrative portion. A person who appears in court should address only the traffic ticket matter at hand.
- Vent at home. If the driver gets a bad ruling, complain about it after leaving the courthouse. Better still, complain about it at home, far from any potential court employees or officers.
- Don’t come to court if you have an attorney. It is always a good idea to hire an attorney. In most cases, a driver who hires an attorney does not need to come to court in person. Any time a driver can stay home instead of coming to court, do so. Let the attorney leverage his/her professional demeanor, courtroom etiquette and possible rapport with the judges/prosecutors/officers/etc. This will improve one’s chances of getting a positive ruling and avoiding the most severe consequences of any traffic ticket.
A person’s every word and action in traffic court can and will be used to determine their level of honesty. A judge is looking not just for facts but also for the driver’s attitude toward the offense for which he/she has been accused. Even if a person is found guilty of the traffic ticket, a driver with a positive attitude and good demeanor can get the minimum fine (which can be $0 in some cases). By contrast, those who are difficult, distracted, or otherwise unserious about the matter can be hit with the maximum possible penalties. Thus, it is always important to be on one’s best behavior. If that’s not possible or if it feels too stressful, one can usually hire an attorney to handle the matter.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Former Judge Deborah Hamsho, Esq. served as Administrative Law Judge and Senior Judge/Borough manager at the NYC Parking Violations Tribunal and Traffic Adjudications Judge at the Richmond County/Staten Island DMV office from 1995 to 2016. She is a certified mediator and a retired NYS general practitioner. She now lives in the beautiful Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania, where she serves her new community, the township of Whitehall, as a mayoral appointee to the Town Board of Ethics.