NMA E-Newsletter #200: When Does it Make Sense to Call an Attorney?

Over the years the NMA has helped countless members fight their tickets. We do this because drivers who stand up for themselves in court almost always have better outcomes than those who do not. In addition, the more stress drivers place on the flawed traffic justice system, the sooner that system will break down and have to be reformed.
And, by all accounts NMA members are successful. They routinely pass their ticket fighting stories on to us for publication in our various forums. One member told us he had fought five traffic tickets by himself and had won every time, with the NMA’s assistance.
This “do it yourself” mindset informs virtually everything the NMA does. Even so, there are certain circumstances where we recommend that you not go it alone and seek the assistance of a qualified attorney.
For example, a member contacted us recently to discuss a ticket he had just received for reckless driving. If convicted, he could face jail time. In addition, he had a marginal driving record and was delinquent in paying a fine for a previous speeding ticket. Given what’s at stake (possible jail time, loss of license, high fines, insurance surcharges), we advised him to contact an attorney.
Other kinds of charges that fall under the “call a lawyer immediately” category include DUI, serious criminal offenses like vehicular homicide and anything that could cause you to lose your license. Also consider contacting an attorney if you decide you can’t devote the time and personal energy to your case.
Working with an attorney may also make sense if you receive a ticket while out of state and can’t return to represent yourself. Not contesting or pleading guilty to an out-of-state charge can lead to penalties and insurance surcharges in your home state. These are in addition to those you already face from the jurisdiction that issued you the ticket.  
The key is to understand the nature of the charges against you and the possible penalties. If you’re unsure about the citation referenced on your ticket, look up the violation code or statute number online. Is it for speeding or something potentially more serious like reckless driving? It’s important to find out since the penalties can vary widely.
How will a guilty verdict affect your driving record? Could you lose your license? What does your driving record look like in the first place? (For tips on where to find answers to these questions, look here and here.) This will help you decide if it makes sense to hire an attorney.
A lawyer can also help if you decide to appeal a lower court ruling. States vary considerably in their appeals procedures. Some can be quite complicated, and you may have to document any legal errors the lower court made that may have negatively affected your case. Unless you’re a third-year law student, your chances of doing this on your own are probably pretty slim.
A good place to begin looking for an attorney is the attorney section of the NMA website. If you can’t afford an attorney, many communities have legal aid societies or bar association chapters that can provide affordable legal services to qualified applicants.
When you hire an attorney, it’s important to communicate your expectations. If you really want to get a dismissal, make that clear. If you can live with a plea bargain or reduced charge, state that as well. Setting clear expectations will help to ensure you get the results you’re paying for. Get an idea of costs up front and consider contacting several different attorneys before making your decision.

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