Many drivers get traffic tickets, but most of them have no idea what to do in order to prepare for their traffic court appearance or what to do when they show up. To make matters worse, there are tons of people willing to give unsolicited “advice” that is mostly based on half-truths and only serves to hurt most peoples’ cases.
To help clear up some of the misinformation circulating around the internet, and to provide you with a lawyer’s perspective on the issue, we put together a list of the top 10 things you need to know before you go to traffic court.
1. Dress Appropriately
You wouldn’t go on a date in your gym clothes, so don’t show up to court in them either. Many drivers fail to understand just how important it is to dress nicely to court. They think that dressing up is the job of the lawyer, so they can get away with wearing a t-shirt and jeans. This couldn't be further from the truth.
Whether we like it or not, our clothing makes an impression on prosecutors and judges. It can subtly say, “I took the time to put on a tie because this matters to me.” On the contrary, it can scream out, “Let’s get this over with already! I am too busy to take this seriously!” We have found that a well-dressed driver will be taken more seriously when presenting his case, whether before a prosecutor in order to try to get a favorable plea bargain (if applicable) or to a judge if pleading not guilty.
Although a suit is certainly not necessary, business casual attire is recommended.
2. Be Respectful
It is extremely important to be cordial and respectful to everyone you encounter in the courthouse. This applies to everyone you meet, not just the judge and prosecutor. Whether you are checking in with a receptionist or speaking with the security officer by the metal detector, make sure to talk only with the utmost respect. Besides the fact that this is simply good manners, it actually could impact the outcome of your case.
Remember, municipal courthouses are not that large. Only a few staff members, prosecutors, judges, security officers, and receptionists work there. As a result, they generally will all interact with one another on a regular basis and share stories about their day.
This means that there is a high likelihood that anything disrespectful that you say or do will bounce around the courthouse without you even knowing it. It might even make its way to the judge.The last thing you want is to make a bad first impression before you even approach the counsel table. Therefore, err on the side of caution and be respectful to everyone. It also goes without saying that you should never be gruff, argumentative, or nasty to a prosecutor or judge since you may be asking them for a courtesy at some point.
3. Be Prepared
To put it bluntly, being unprepared will kill your chances of getting a favorable plea bargain and winning your case.
If you are in NYC, your case will likely go to trial since there is no way to negotiate. You or your attorney will have to be prepared to question or “cross examine” an experienced police officer and make legal arguments about sufficiency of proof (for example) to the judge. You should bring any evidence you have (a dashcam video, for example) that you think will support your case. An experienced lawyer can help evaluate that evidence in advance.
If you are outside NYC, either you, or your attorney (if you have one) will meet with the prosecutor to discuss a potential settlement or “plea bargain.” A prosecutor will give you literally three minutes of his time. They have a knack for picking out those who are lying, making excuses, and just plain unprepared. However, they also have a keen ability to pick out those who know what they are talking about, can concisely articulate a cogent point, and brought their “A” game. Usually, instead of dealing with the latter group of people at trial, the prosecutor will cut them a deal. Make sure you are in this category.
In the event you or your lawyer do not get a favorable plea bargain offer, you must be ready to take your case to a hearing (or “trial”) in front of a judge. No matter how much you think “Law and Order” has prepared you for this moment, real life is nothing like what happens on television. Trials move along rapidly and in all likelihood you may feel it’s over before it even starts. As above, here’s where an experienced trial lawyer can make a big difference.
4. Show Up Early
The biggest complaint that we hear from drivers is that they had to wait in an extremely long line. Some say they waited all day and missed work.
However, one of the best kept secrets is that coming early can help secure an early spot in line and in the court proceedings. Most (but not all) courts hear cases in the order people check in. Additionally, attorney cases usually get called first - so here’s another advantage to hiring an attorney. He may be able to get you out of court hours earlier that you would otherwise, and in most NY courts you can avoid coming to court altogether by sending in your lawyer as your legal representative (rules vary state to state).
5. Be Honest
If you try to pull a fast one in traffic court, you will not get very far. Prosecutors and Judges are trained to see through liars and will ask questions that even the best hustler couldn’t answer. Thus, it is always best to be honest, truthful, and straightforward. Sometimes what we think is detrimental actually turns out to be harmless. That doesn’t mean you have to take the stand and admit guilt, but if you do choose to testify you will be questioned by the prosecutor, police officer and/or judge.
6. Expect the Unexpected
Sometimes your traffic court date will inexplicably be changed, the room that you are supposed to show up doesn’t seem to exist, or you are first in line and then five attorneys cut you. No matter what happens, keep cool and try to expect the unexpected. Doing anything else will cause you unnecessary stress that will not allow you to focus on the task at hand: getting a good result on your traffic ticket case. If you have an attorney just remember that the unexpected probably won’t come as a surprise to him and he will help you navigate any unanticipated situations.
7. Listen to Other Cases
Time to listen up. Hearing other cases that come before yours will allow you to do a number of things to help improve your chance of success. First, it allows you to get a feel for the judge’s personality. Is he more sympathetic to certain arguments? Is he relaxed, reserved, etc.? Knowing this ahead of time will be able to save you the hassle of finding out when it’s too late. Second, it allows you to see what the process is like, which is invaluable for decreasing your nervousness.
8. Turn Off Your Cell Phone
Although this should be a no-brainer, you might be surprised. In this high-paced, digitally connected world, certain people might as well glue their phones to their ears! Make sure not to be one of these individuals. Not only is it rude to the other people around you in the courthouse, but they are also prohibited in the courtroom. Unplug. It will do you and others a world of good.
9. Call the Judge “Your Honor”
Although it might not seem like it, this is a formal proceeding where a judge, who deserves our respect, is presiding over your case. Do not say “Mr.” or “Mrs.” Make sure to say “Your Honor.” Not only is this more respectful, but it also makes you sound more eloquent.
10. Hire a Lawyer
We can’t stress this enough: don’t try to be a hero. The old saying goes, “the person that represents himself in court has a fool for a client.” Though they may seem simple, traffic court cases can get very complicated, and unanticipated things can occur, and it is best to hire a well-trained traffic ticket attorney who can help you every step of the way.
The price of hiring an experienced traffic ticket attorney is well worth the peace of mind that comes with having someone with significant experience navigate the often choppy waters of traffic court.