Stay Focused on the Basics when Representing Yourself

When it comes to fighting tickets on your own, NMA state activists can provide a wealth of insight and knowledge. Recently, some NMA members were sharing ideas via email on ticket-fighting strategies. The discussion turned to the finer points of law, admissibility of evidence, technical issues and how to handle appeals.

The email exchange was meandering along until Ken Michaud, one of our Massachusetts state activists, put everything into perspective with the following wisdom gleaned from the trenches of traffic court. We provide it here as practical, rather than legal, guidance.

In lower-level courts, but often in mid-level criminal courts as well, your success primarily comes down to whether the judge likes you, thinks you’re of good character and thinks you’re guilty or not. Of secondary importance is the structure of your state/local judicial system. Fine points of law and particularly questions of admissibility of evidence do matter but they are tertiary issues.

Courts are fundamentally interested in the process of dispensing justice and the necessity of preventing injustice. If you bring up detailed, technical admissibility questions in this type of proceeding, you’re likely to annoy the judge by taking up his time. He may also think you’re guilty and just trying to get off on a technicality. Even when the law is on your side, if the primary court rules against you, there’s a significant burden shift against you at the appellate level.

Appellate judges are likely to be even more easily annoyed given the amount of vexatious appeals they get. If they’re motivated enough they can, and will, find some technicality or minor mistake, right or wrong, to rule against you. And once you appeal to a court of discretionary review, even if they think you’re right, if they aren’t interested in the issue they will simply deny your petition for certiorari. The fact is that on minor issues, sometimes you simply have no forum to get justice, no matter how right you are.

This is not to discourage you from aggressively standing up for your rights, but based on my experience with the court system, I believe the best ways to fight tickets (in order of preference) are the following:

1. Don’t get them in the first place. Maintain your situational awareness at all times. Learn how to conduct yourself at a traffic stop, and consider protecting yourself with technology (radar/laser detectors,, smart phone apps, etc.)

2. At your first hearing (assuming you’re entitled to a de novo hearing) take a respectful, almost apologetic tone. Something like: “I think he got the guy behind me and I have a good record.” You just may catch a break.

3. Aggressive cross examination of the officer based on the information you received during discovery.

4. Legal tactics.

The NMA’s “Fight That Ticket” e-book is a good place to start learning about defense strategies and basic courtroom procedures. Supporting members can download the book for free while others can purchase it here.

If you’re to the point where legal tactics are your only option, here are few thoughts:

You simply can’t do enough research. Consider access to a Westlaw subscription—your local public library probably has one. Every time you research you’ll find another point you missed the first time.

Judge hate surprises. Make your legal arguments using written motions (motions in limine) filed with the court before trial. Bringing up a detailed legal motion at trial almost ensures an annoyed judge who won’t take the motion seriously. This is not to be confused with verbal motions to object or dismiss, which must be made in a timely manner during the proceedings.

Again, research! A seemingly trivial mistake at trial can prevent you from raising an issue on appeal. Let’s say you file a motion in limine to exclude evidence. It’s denied. You then question its admissibility on cross examination. The judge rules against you. If you didn’t raise a formal objection during trial, in many states you’ve still waived your right to appeal by allowing the evidence into the record without a contemporaneous objection. Your motion in limine was pre-trial, and your cross-examination questioned the weight of the evidence, not its admissibility.

Choose your arguments carefully, particularly at the appellate level. Scattershot arguments often give the impression you’re grasping at straws. But if it’s clear you’re going to lose anyway, make sure you get everything you want to say on the record, because you can’t appeal based on material that isn’t on the record.

Finally, if your goal is to effect systemic change to the traffic justice system, defending yourself will certainly help. However, if your real goal is to abolish all red-light cameras (or something similar) your best bet is the political system, not the judicial system. Particularly at the state level, courts are generally deferential to their legislatures and executive branches.

The NMA’s state activists are valuable sources of information whose expertise is available to Supporting Members.

Not an NMA Member yet?

Join today and get these great benefits!

Comments are closed.