Don’t Fall For 3 Common Myths
Most people who get a traffic ticket simply pay whatever they are told to pay. I think that’s short-sighted and inflicts unnecessary self-harm. Of course, each person is entitled to make a personal decision on the matter based on their values and circumstances. However, I believe many of those decisions are made with incorrect assumptions and lack of information. Yes, it is even possible to have your speeding ticket dismissed.
I’ll address a few of the most potent myths about traffic tickets in hopes of you will make an informed decision. (This blog post is NOT for a person who holds a Commercial Driver License.)
MYTH #1: YOU ARE GUILTY
You are absolutely innocent of any traffic ticket accusation under Texas law. You may even believe you are factually guilty, but you are legally wrong. The presumption of innocence applies to you, even if you are truly guilty.
You are only legally guilty if you 1) pay the ticket; 2) enter a plea of guilty or no contest; or 3) are found guilty at a trial. Unless one of those things happens, YOU ARE NOT GUILTY AND YOU OWE NOTHING.
A Ticket Merely Starts a Process
A traffic ticket is essentially little more than a preliminary notice you are officially accused of a criminal charge. That charge is almost always a Class C misdemeanor, which is a crime with no provision for a jail sentence.*
Courts make it very easy to pay your ticket because that’s what they want you to do. It also is how the laws are arranged. Paying results in conviction and all its collateral consequences, which may include increased insurance premiums for years or driver license suspensions.
MYTH #2: I CAN’T FIGHT IT
Not only can you fight a ticket, Texas law provides you with the right to a trial. Your trial may be by a judge or a jury. In a trial by judge, the judge decides both matters of law and matters of fact. Matters of law include things like what evidence is admissible and whether an objection is sustained or overruled. In a jury trial, the judge still decides the law, but the facts are decided by the jury, along with the ultimate decision of whether you are guilty or not guilty.
You get to choose a trial by judge or by jury. Jury trial is the default option by law; you would have to waive that right in writing to have a trial by a judge. I almost always recommend a jury trial as the better option.
What Happens at a Trial
At a trial, the state is your opponent. The state has the burden of proof. You don’t have to prove anything to win. They must prove their case to win. The state must prove its accusation “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is the highest burden of proof at a trial. Every juror on your jury of six people would need to agree to find you guilty.
The prosecutor represents the state and may call witnesses to testify against you, as well as offer exhibits like photographs or video to try to prove the case. You also have an opportunity to question all witnesses, but you are not required to do so. Similarly, you may testify, if you wish, but you may not be forced to testify.
Likewise, you have an opportunity to present favorable evidence to undermine the state’s case or to provide the jury with information which may raise a reasonable doubt. You can even compel people to come to court to testify through the use of subpoenas.
Representing Yourself in a Trial is a Thoroughly Bad Idea
I don’t recommend you go to trial for your traffic ticket by yourself. You would be required to follow rules of evidence and procedure, even if you don’t understand them. The judge cannot ethically help you with those things and would be required to simply watch you flounder and fail. It’s painful for me to watch people try to defend themselves in court. There are limited resources available to give some guidance to people without lawyers, but I don’t recommend them. You owe it to yourself to at least consult with a lawyer about your ticket.
In fact, you may get to have a second jury trial, if the first one doesn’t go your way, depending upon where your ticket is filed. In most courts, you can appeal a trial verdict of guilty by posting an appeal bond shortly after the verdict. The result is the case is transferred to a County Court or County Court at Law for a “trial de novo”, which is basically a “do over”, a new trial with a new judge and jury.
MYTH #3: IT WILL COST LESS TO JUST PAY
Without a lawyer:
In the vast majority of cases, you can get a dismissal and pay less than what the ticket normally costs. Here’s how you can get your speeding ticket dismissed. If you are eligible, you can insist on taking a mandatory driving safety course (DSC), instead of simply paying the ticket. Timing is critical to enforce this right; you must request it before your initial court date. You would have to pay the court a fee, provide a driving record, take the DSC (and provide proof to the court), and not get any other tickets for a period of time, usually 60 days.
People frequently make the same critical mistake: waiting until the last few days to take the DSC. Don’t wait. Taking the course is not the deadline; providing proof of completion is the deadline. It takes time for the course provider to send proof of completion to the court. If you take this option, please complete the course in the first week.
The class is typically $25 and may be taken in person or online. Search for one here: https://www.tdlr.texas.gov/dessearch. Assuming you complete all the requirements, your case will be dismissed. Texas allows this process once every 12 months for eligible offenses.
You may also have an opportunity to negotiate with the prosecutor for a deferred disposition, if you are eligible. Usually, this is only when you go to a pretrial hearing, as the prosecutor is unlikely to speak directly to you outside of court. Please understand the prosecutor is your adversary, not your friend.
With a lawyer:
Paying your ticket may seem cheaper right now. It’s a bad savings tip. The resulting conviction can easily cost you much more than in insurance premiums over time. If you change insurance companies, you’ll likely have some major regrets because it will definitely cost you far more than you thought you saved. Your employment opportunities even could be affected.
Yes, you will pay a fee, if you want a lawyer. There is no ethical way for a lawyer to guarantee an outcome, but your odds of getting a more favorable outcome are far better by hiring a lawyer. Depending upon your driving record, you could suffer a suspension without knowing it will happen.
HIRE A LAWYER WHEN IN DOUBT AT ALL
Obviously, hiring a lawyer makes a lot of sense and can ultimately not only save you money, it can provide peace of mind that the process is being handled professionally and in your best interests.
*Some Class B misdemeanors, such as Driving While Intoxicated and reckless driving may result in tickets, but arrest and bonding out of jail are far more common outcomes for those types of cases. Some locations in Texas also issue citations for certain jailable misdemeanors like possession of marijuana, and this blog entry is not applicable to those situations.