It’s a classic scenario: you’re cruising along at ten miles over the speed limit in an attempt to keep up with the rest of the cars on the road. You think you are simply going with the flow of traffic, when you suddenly see flashing lights in your rear view mirror. In an instant, you find yourself holding a $325 speeding ticket.
The headache of dealing with a traffic ticket doesn’t necessarily go away when you pay the fine. When points go on your driving record and your insurance company finds out, you could be hit with insurance surcharges of up to 30% for the next three years.
That’s why whether you’re guilty of an infraction or not, attorneys and legal experts say you should first investigate all legal options before you jump to pay that ticket. With a little homework and effort, you may be able to pay a reduced fine and avoid having it on your record.
A big expense for a little mistake
In many municipalities, traffic tickets are a big source of county revenues. John Bowman, Communications Director for the National Motorists Association, says fines collected from traffic tickets amount to billions of dollars. The association recommends that drivers always fight their tickets and it even publishes a 250-page guide on how to do it.
Bowman says whether you’re guilty or not, you should use every legal measure available to try to minimize your fine and, most importantly, try to prevent it from impacting your insurance premiums.
“Depending on the infraction and your driving record, it can cause your insurance premiums to rise by up to 30% for the next three years. The fine is just the beginning,” says Bowman.
Barry Kowitt of Unger and Kowitt Law Firm in Miami said that from start to finish, a simple traffic ticket could easily be “more than a $1,000 experience.” That includes the fine, court costs, and increased insurance premiums. For most drivers, that could amount to more than a week’s pay. Kowitt says he’s seen clients who have had to make the decision between paying the ticket and paying their rent.
“And that could be simply because you were doing ten miles over the speed limit to keep up with traffic. It is in your interest to fight it because your options are not that great,” says Kowitt.
Yet Bowman says perhaps only 5% of drivers actually contest their tickets. Because drivers may feel so hopeless in fighting the system or because they may think the $200 fine is the end of it, most simply pay the fine and then move on.
Explore your options before paying
When you immediately pay a ticket, you’re automatically admitting guilt and will voluntarily pay the highest fine. You’ll often have up to 90 days to enter a plea or pay the fine, so take some time to explore your options.
“Fighting” a ticket usually doesn’t mean going to court in front of a judge and district attorney. Bowman says, “In most cases, you’ll never go to trial anyway.”
If it’s your first ticket in the jurisdiction, you should ask the clerk if there is a special “no contest” plea for first-time offenders. In many cases, the district attorney will offer first-time offenders a reduced fine and will not release the citation to the insurance company.
If that’s not an option, start examining every piece of information on the ticket. This includes confirming all of your information, as well as the notes and documentation provided by the ticketing officer.
Ask yourself the following questions: Is the citation number correct? Is the intersection and location correct? What about the time of day? You can file a “discovery of motion” to request all the information about your case, including the officer’s notes, calibration certificates for the radar gun, and other details, which will help you in your investigation.
Kowitt says missing or incorrect information on a citation can often be grounds for dismissal.
“We see cases in this office on a regular basis, certainly weekly, that have [incorrect information]. In many cases, a little bit of homework can go a long way,” says Kowitt.
Minimizing fines and insurance impacts
“If you do have to make a court appearance, another option is to try to reschedule it to increase the odds that the ticketing officer doesn’t show,” says Alex Carroll, author of Beat the Cops. Because you have the legal right to question your accuser, a case will often be dismissed if a cop is a no-show.
You might also be able to approach the District Attorney and simply ask for a plea to a lesser infraction. “Most traffic courts are going to offer some level of flexibility,” says Scott Feifer, an attorney with Feifer and Greenberg in New York.
Feifer says while New York City doesn’t offer plea bargaining, most other counties around the country do. There can be a lot of overhead in taking a case to trial, which is why many courts allow you to simply pay a fine and move on.
“If you give the court the impression that you are serious about fighting the ticket, you are going to have a lot more leverage and control over the process,” says Bowman.
Because traffic courts might have to handle hundreds of cases per day, there just isn’t enough funding, staffing, and time to take every single one to trial. Merely showing up to the courthouse can make a big difference because no one wants you to clog the system.
A little effort fighting your violation can really pay off. For example, that $400 speeding ticket might get knocked down to a $125 equipment violation, which won’t impact your insurance rates.
If you received the speeding ticket in another town, another option might be to fight the ticket by mail –usually called a “trial by declaration.” Carroll says a reasonable and coherent argument can often result in a dismissal, because police officers are required to submit written rebuttals, which doesn’t always happen.
“You can never go wrong contesting a ticket if you have the time and energy, because you’re almost always going to come out ahead,” says Bowman.
Craig Guillot is a business and personal finance writer from New Orleans. He covers insurance, investing, real estate, retirement and debt. His work has appeared in such publications and web sites as Entrepreneur, CNNMoney.com, CNBC.com, Bankrate.com and Investor’s Business Daily. He is the author of “Stuff About Money: No BS Financial Advice for Regular People.”