by Steven J. Owens (unless otherwise attributed)
There's an excellent book, from Nolo Press, Fight Your Ticket. It has some California-specific law in it, but it's still an excellent book to read to get prepared for this. Unfortunately, a lot of the advice in Fight Your Ticket is about stuff you should do before and while you're actually getting the ticket, but it's still an excellent book to read (and you should learn that stuff for the next time you get a ticket).
Let me preface the following with this:
I know a fair number of cops; the following is not an attack on cops. Cops are just people, like anybody else. Most of them are good people, trying to do the right thing, protect society and maintain law and order. Some of them aren't. Some of them would like to be, but are lazy, or sloppy, or ignorant, etc. And all of them have to work within a system that sometimes has other priorities, like raising money by handing out traffic tickets, instead of protecting society.
I fully support the police nailing your ass if you're driving dangerously. Most cops, in my experience and according to the cops I've known, would much rather be doing real police work than hand out traffic tickets. The only way to shift the priorities of the system away from using traffic tickets as a fund-raiser is for everybody to exercise their rights fully and make it more expensive and time-consuming to do so. So if you want to help the cops get back to doing real police work, exercise your rights.
How To Conduct Yourself During A Traffic Stop
A traffic stop is the second-most dangerous thing a cop can do (the most dangerous is entering a citizen's house). Always bear this in mind, and do everything you can to reassure the cop that you are not a threat.
Always Fight It
Always fight it if you can at all afford to, even if you don't think you have a case.
1) If the cop doesn't show up, you win.
2) If the cop does show up, often if you go to fight it, they will routinely plea bargain it down, to half, or even less.
3) As Fight Your Ticket says, the only reason bad traffic tickets are given out is because not enough people fight, so the state can afford it. If more people fought their tickets, the state would find it too costly to allow bad tickets.
My First Traffic Ticket
Always show up to fight, if you can afford it.
My first traffic ticket, I did all sorts of homework. I showed up dressed like a professional and I had a copy of Fight Your Ticket; a legal pad with a list of points to bring up; and a printout of the National Highway Safety Administration's report on radar gun accuracy. The assistant prosecutor handling the plea bargaining took one look at me and offered me 1/3 of the fine and points, when everybody else was getting 1/2.
Dress Like A Professional
Dress in a professional manner for court. A suit, if you have one that doesn't look like you're on your way to a wedding or a funeral, or otherwise dress pants, button shirt, tie, maybe a sweater (if you're a guy - if you're a gal, you know more about clothes than I do).
You don't want to look like you dressed up for court, you want to look like you're a professional. This is for five reasons:
1) It shows the judge you respect the court, which will make him feel better about you.
2) If you look like a professional, the judge will likely feel that you generally have your shit together, so he'll feel better about giving you a break. He won't feel like he's wasting his time. This is generally true of most folks in officialdom - they deal with a lot of clueless losers, so they lose all sense of empathy with the rest of the people they deal with. If you make them feel you've got it together, they'll go the extra mile for you.
3) It makes the judge more likely to think that you're intelligent and educated, so he's more likely to really listen to what you have to say.
4) It makes the prosecutor think that you have your shit more together, so you're more likely to have done your homework, more likely to be more coherent with the judge, more likely to be more aggressive in defending your rights, in general more likely to be a pain in the ass for the prosecutor if this goes to court.
5) It makes you look like you are more likely to be able to afford to hire a lawyer to pursue this, purely out of annoyance with the legal system, which will make you an even BIGGER pain in the ass for the prosecutor.
They'll give you a court date. You respond with a request for an alternate date. You need a good reason here, something like you can't get off work, or you're going to be out of town on a pre-scheduled work trip.
Normally they schedule all the traffic ticket appearances for the same day, so if you get the postponement, the odds that the cop won't show goes way up.
Sometimes you can get more than one postponement, do so if you can, as this will increase the odds that your date won't be on one of the cop's scheduled deal-with-all-my-tickets dates, and he won't feel like dealing with the hassle of going to court.
For fighting the actual ticket, you need to know how they determined your speed. There have been studies done; most experienced cops are actually able to humanly estimate speed with amazing accuracy. But humans aren't objective, machines are.
There are basically three approaches they can use. There's a fourth system I've heard about being deployed around here recently, but I don't know what it is; there are laser-based systems in Europe, maybe it's one of those.
Radar is simply a radar gun. VASCAR is timing how long it takes your car to cover a measured distance (usually marked by two white lines painted across the road). Pacing is a copy car following you and matching your speed to see how fast you're going.
If it was a speed trap, it was probably radar or VASCAR (the white lines). If it wasn't a speed trap, it was probably pacing, maybe radar.
If it's radar, your main shot is that they might not have calibrated the radar gun that day. Also, there was a supreme court decision that said the calibration MUST be done with a tuning fork, not the "automatic" calibration switch that most radar guns have. The automatic calibration uses some sort of crystal (like in a crystal radio set, I guess) that is less accurate. Again, this might have changed.
If you're curious as to how a radar gun lets you measure speed: when you bounce a radio signal off something, if that target is moving, the radio signal's frequency is changed. Radar guns send out a signal and measure the change in frequency. Illegal radar gun jammers simply transmit a stronger signal of the initial signal, overpowering the fainter echo signal. By the way, I wouldn't mess with jammers; don't try to out-escalate a cop, they're usually much better at it than you are.
VASCAR is basically a glorified stopwatch. They paint two white lines across the road, some specific distance apart. They punch the distance into the VASCAR (or maybe it's just a pre-set distance). When you roll over the first line, the cop presses a button, when you roll over the second, he presses it again. The box does the calculation and spits out the MPH.
Sometimes (but not often) the police will use landmarks instead of white lines. Sometimes they'll do the monitoring/measuring from a small airplane, observing from above, with another cop stationed further down the road to wave you down or pull you over.
If they used VASCAR, your best shot here is that the policeman's timing was inaccurate, that he was just slightly off when he hit the buttons as your car rolled over the first, then the second line. The trick here is that the timing only has to be off by a very small fraction of a second to throw off the calculation by a surprisingly large number. Let's say for example that the lines are 100 feet apart:
For example, 66mph in a 55mph zone:
66 mph = 96.8 fps, crosses 100 feet in 1.03 seconds
55 mph = 80.66 fps, crosses 100 feet in 1.24 seconds
So it's only .19 seconds, which is plausible. You go into court and you say, "Your honor, the officer only had to be off by less than a fifth of a second when he pressed the button to give a false reading of 66mph instead of 55mph."
If you have a much higher gap, it'll be harder to persuade the judge, but maybe you can say it to the prosecutor to intimidate them into giving you a lower fine, during the plea bargaining. The point of saying it to the prosecutor isn't so much to convince him he has a weak case as it is to convince that you're going to be a pain in the ass if he has to deal with you in court. Note that this is a fine line to walk - the pain-in-the-ass factor versus the I-want-to-lay-some-smackdown-on-this-smartass factor.
Pacing basically means they pull up behind you and match speeds for several seconds. The trick here is how long/far did they pace you?
Check your state law, see if there's a required distance. PA doesn't have a required distance, but the highway patrol guidelines suggest at least half a mile (0.5 miles), and preferably a full mile (1.0 miles). The ticket I got last year, the guy only paced me 0.025 miles (and he scrawled it really messily on the ticket, to try to hide it so I'd think it was 0.25 miles)!
One of the things Fight Your Ticket suggests is that the cop may not actually have paced you, but may have been closing in on you when he was supposed to be pacing you. The book says, if you noticed the cop in the rear view and it was a ways back, then you look up a second later and he's right behind you, you can bring that up in court and point out that of course the cop thought you were going 65mph in a 55mph zone, because HE was going 65mph to catch up to you.
Look For Mistakes
Look for mistakes. Any good mistake you can find may be enough to get the judge to throw the ticket out. One ticket I got, I waited in line, the clerk picked out several of us for some specific reason and told us to go in together, before anybody else. We walked in, the judge told us not to bother saying anything, then said that all of the tickets were being dismissed over some sort of jurisdiction problem.
In the example above, I said the white lines were 100 feet apart, but you have to find out what yours were. You should also go back and measure the distance between the lines. If you can't find the white lines, ask the police department where they're located and what the distance is. (You are legally allowed to ask them shit like this before the court date, by the way; they may try to give you a run-around, but that's not some grand conspiracy, it's just bureacracy and laziness).
In fact, you may want to ask the police department how far apart the lines are anyway, and THEN go measure for yourself and make sure they didn't screw it up. If the lines are closer together than they told you, this throws the accuracy of the VASCAR calculation off, so run the numbers and figure out how much it threw it off. Bring that up in court to question the accuracy of the ticket. If they're off by an appreciable amount, the judge might just throw the ticket out because of that.