If you get pulled over, and even after following my instructions, get a ticket and have to go to traffic court, don’t worry—everything you need to know about what you need to do in traffic court is right here.
1. Understand what you’re there for
Your ticket will be for something like an infraction or a misdemeanor, and will have fines/fees attached to it, potentially along with other options (like traffic school, community service, correctible violations, etc.). Make sure you know exactly what you’re being charged with and all of the consequences that come along with it. If you don’t understand the written instructions on your ticket, call the courthouse and ask the clerk before you go in.
2. Make sure you arrive on time
Sounds obvious, but traffic court can be confusing—there may be multiple courthouse locations listed on your ticket, and multiple times as well. In my experience, you are given a definitive court date/time by the officer when you’re pulled over, but should you wish to go earlier, you can. However, in order to do so, you have to go to the court as soon as it opens, and ask to be put on the calendar for that day. This could mean you get there at 8 AM, but court may not actually start until 1:30. So bring a book. And make sure to call ahead so you know exactly what location and what time you have to get there, as well as what days you can go (e.g. some courts only hold session on Mondays, or Mondays and Tuesdays, so don’t be the jerk that shows up on a Wednesday).
3. Don’t be surprised that there are other people there
Unfortunately you will not have your court session all to yourself. There will most likely be a large group of you there to see the judge at the same time. This means that everyone else gets to hear why you’re there, and anything/everything you and the judge say to each other. In other words: it’s embarrassing. And takes a long time because you may have to wait for a bunch of other people to called before you. However, rest assured, because there will always be people in there worse off than you. Yes, there will be those better off, too, but focus on the worse off ones. Trust me—you may think you have it bad with your $400 speeding ticket, but the guy who’s in there on possession of marijuana while driving, and who will lose his license for at least 180 days, if not a year, plus a $1000+ fine, has a lot more to worry about. Not that we rejoice at others’ misfortune, but we rejoice at others’ misfortune.
4. Listen to the bailiff’s instructions
There should be a bailiff in the courtroom who makes an announcement before the judge enters. It will most likely be a butch lesbian. Just keep an eye out for the pixie cut and resting bitch face. She should give general instructions about how the court session will go, including how/in what order the judge will call people up, what to do when the judge calls your name, what to do after you’ve finished speaking with the judge, etc. She will also ask if anyone has any questions—use this opportunity to ask what to do about the fact that they misspelled your name (it’s fucking Alexandra, not -der, do I look like a man?! Don’t answer that.), or any other things you are confused about. You may be embarrassed to ask a question in front of all of your fellow lawbreakers, but trust me, they’re all confused too. This is not 5th grade where your classmates will make fun of you for asking a ‘stupid question’—you are no longer a meek, timid little 10-year old, you are a STRONG, POWERFUL, EQUALLY INTIMIDATED AND AFRAID-OF-LIFE ADULT, but just fuck everyone else, you’re there to look out for yourself.
5. But also make friends
Traffic school is a sad, interesting place. Lots of great people watching—we’re talking better than Disneyland. Make friends with the old man next to you who got a ticket for being on his flip phone 50 feet away from pulling into his garage. When you both get out, he’ll give you a thumbs up, and it’ll be the most validation you’ve gotten since your grandma told you you looked handsome last Christmas. You’re all in this together, so foster that solidarity. It’ll be fascinating and depressing to watch people plea with the judge when they can’t afford the fines, and offer excuse after excuse. But these are your people—the downtrodden, the endearingly pathetic, the struggling—you are them and they are you. Feel for them, be sympathetic. You may even meet your soul mate—never underestimate the courtroom’s ability to be a mating ritual. After all, the bad boys who speed and blow red lights and don’t carry their insurance are the sexiest and most exciting. Like, he may be unstable, but you know he’s good with his tongue.
6. When you’re up to bat, know your options
When the judge calls you up, he’ll tell you what you’re being charged with, and then you get to enter your plea. This is the most important part: know that your only options are not just guilty or not guilty—you can enter NO CONTEST. The judge/bailiff will most likely not tell you this is an option, because if you plead no contest, you are not admitting guilt. You are basically saying, “I’m not contesting the charge because [I don’t have time/resources to go to trial, or whatever the reason may be], but I’m not saying I am guilty either.” The outcome is the same as if you plead guilty, but your formal plea, for the record, will not be guilty. I think this is important as a matter of principle, and should this issue ever come back to haunt you, which is unlikely but possible, you will have your no contest plea on record.
If you plead not guilty, you will then go to trial. This means the judge will give you a separate court date/time to come back and argue your case (so your first appearance in court is not the time to provide evidence or an explanation or reason as to why you’re innocent—if you try to bring anything like that up during your initial appearance, the judge will dismiss it/won’t hear it). The officer will need to be present at this future court date, too. You will be able to represent yourself at that time, or bring a lawyer. You/your lawyer will be able to cross examine the officer. If the officer doesn’t show up, there’s a chance the judge will dismiss your case, which means you won’t face any convictions or consequences. But the judge can also decide to still convict you even if the officer doesn’t show.
If you plead guilty or no contest, you can often have your fines/fees reduced on the spot. This is of course an incentive the courts use to encourage you not take your case to trial, but sometimes it’s worth it. In addition, you can request to do traffic school, which will prevent any points from being added to your license and remove the conviction from your record so your insurance isn’t affected, if whatever you’ve been charged with is a small enough infraction, and if you haven’t done traffic school in the recent past for another conviction (in CA it’s the past 18 months).
I find that a no contest plea, along with a request for reduced fines/fees and traffic school is the most efficient option. Yes, traffic school is a bit more money, but unless you have a solid defense and can spare the time/energy/money to come back and go to trial (and even then, my gut tells me traffic court judges usually rule in favor of the officer because they’re bitter that they couldn’t get a real job and all of them are part of the same corrupt system), it’s your best bet. Otherwise, you can opt to not go to traffic court at all, and just pay the full fines/fees online, or via mail/phone. This way, you can still do traffic school if you were ever eligible for it, but you miss the chance for the reduced fines/fees.
There are always other stipulations—like, if you request traffic school, you have to pay all of your fees/fines upfront, and if you want a payment plan, you can’t do traffic school, and if you pay with a credit card, there’s an extra fee, blah blah blah. More roadblocks and hoops to jump through because it wouldn’t be US government if it weren’t bureaucratic bullshit. So just clean up all those loose ends after you finish with the judge.
7. Fist pump as you walk out
Preferably whilst jumping—GOOD RIDDANCE, THE MAN. We fought you the best we could, and now, we bid you a-fucking-dieu.
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