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Fighting traffic tickets -- some strategies

  • Story Highlights
  • Sometimes you can reduce a charge by pleading guilty -- with an explanation
  • It's possible in some states to take the DMV-authorized "driving school" online
  • Avoid the moving violation conviction -- even if it means paying a larger fine
  • If trying to bargain, be careful of the very real risk of antagonizing the court
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By Eric Peters
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(AOL Autos) -- You've probably read articles about fighting traffic tickets -- but the reality is many of us (probably most of us) just don't have the money to hire a lawyer -- or the time/expertise (let alone gumption) to actually challenge a ticket on our own.

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Avoid a moving violation conviction even if it means paying a bigger fine.

There are some alternatives, however.

Plead guilty -- with explanation

Sometimes you can get a reduced charge by pleading guilty -- but with an explanation. Provided you have an otherwise clean record -- and the charge itself is relatively minor -- often, this can yield good results.

Remember -- what they want most is money. The charge itself is of secondary importance.

A great deal depends on the judge, however. Some are hard cases, others more reasonable. Before you decide to go this route, it's smart to get to court early and watch how your judge handles other cases -- especially those similar to your own. If you think, based on his actions, that he's going to throw the book at you -- you can always request a continuance; in many states, these are granted automatically upon request. Simply tell the judge you are not ready to go to trial.

A continuance will push your court date off for another few weeks or so and give you time to prepare a defense -- or hire a lawyer.

Bargain

Traffic courts are a lot like buying a new car -- because there's lots of haggling involved.

You can ask the judge (or the prosecuting/commonwealth's attorney) about the possibility of agreeing to attend driving school and/or pay a fine in return for dropping the charge against you -- or changing the charge to a non-moving violation, which avoids DM "points" being assigned to your driving record.

That means your insurance company won't have a pretext for a rate hike. In some counties/states, certain charges aren't reported to the DMV at all -- especially if it's an out-of-state ticket. (Mostly, these include non-moving violations such as "defective equipment" -- a common "lesser charge" that's often assigned in lieu of the original moving violation.)

The key thing, however, is to avoid the moving violation conviction -- even if it means paying a larger fine than you'd otherwise have paid for just the ticket/offense you were originally charged with. A one-time hit to your wallet is infinitely preferable to having that ticket held against you for anywhere from three to five years -- the length of time it will be on your DMV record -- and used by your insurance company to justify higher premiums.

The total cost of a single moving violation on your DMV record can easily exceed the one-time hit of a fine for "defective equipment" (or whatever) many times over.

And keep in mind: If you should be unlucky enough to receive another ticket before the old one "drops off" -- your jeopardy has just doubled. The points stack up -- and your insurance goes through the roof. How likely is it you can go for another five years without getting nailed again? For many of us, that's a virtual impossibility!

It's possible in some states to take the DMV-authorized "driving school" online -- and avoid the hassle of spending an entire Saturday reliving high school detention.

Bottom line

Either of these alternatives -- pleading guilty with an explanation or bargaining your way to a lesser charge -- can be more cost-effective than hiring a lawyer or spending days/weeks of your own time doing what's necessary to fight the ticket yourself. Most of us have jobs and responsibilities that make that very difficult, if not impossible.

And it can be very intimidating for a layman to go up against the system, subpoenaing records, questioning the ticketing officer in open court -- and so on.

By challenging the system in this way, one also runs the very real risk of antagonizing the court -- and becoming the target of an angry judge looking to "teach someone a lesson." It's true you can always appeal a conviction (in many states, a traffic law case may even entitle you to a jury trial, if you want to take it that far). But that involves yet more time, yet more expense. How much of either can you afford to spend on a traffic ticket beef?

Yes, there's the principle involved. If it's a really unjust ticket, you may be motivated to go all the way -- and do whatever it takes to beat the rap. But sometimes, it's smart to pick your battles -- and go for the best outcome you can realistically hope for given time and other constraints. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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