I tackle today’s topic with a hint of trepidation. After all, I’m basically advocating for people to not obey traffic laws. Before we get into how to most efficiently beat a traffic ticket I should make it clear that if you’re driving drunk, or extremely recklessly (re: 40km over) you deserve some serious punishment and this stuff won’t apply to you anyway. Please don’t think I’m trying to justify extreme behavior that puts lives in harm’s way.
What this article is looking at is how to get out of a minor speeding ticket so that it doesn't kill your insurance costs going forward. I had some first-hand experience with this type of situation when I was going to university. There is a known speed trap coming off of the main highway leading on to campus where the limit goes from 60 to 30 as you make a left-hand turn. If you got a green while in the flow of traffic and began reducing your speed as you turned into campus you were still guaranteed to be over the technical limit. The cops had a perfect hiding spot just off of the main thoroughfare, and when it was statistics time (I worked four summers in law enforcement, that statistics are a part of the job is a fact, not a debate) you knew you had to really watch yourself.
Unfortunately one Sunday morning I forgot about the trap. It was near the end of the month (surprise surprise) and there was light traffic as I was coming back from the gym. I got a green and began to decelerate down from 60 as I entered campus. Of course I saw the cop a split second before the lights came on and knew I was in trouble. He clocked me at 39. Now, in this instance I truly believe that it is difficult to make the case I was a hazard to anyone else in society. On a moral level I was pretty upset that I didn’t get let off with a warning, and so I looked into fighting the ticket on principle. It didn’t hurt that I was a student with a fair amount of leisure time and that a couple hundred bucks was a lot of money to me at that point. I won the case just by showing up, but I learned some very interesting things in the course of doing some research on the topic.
The True Cost of a Speeding Ticket
From the government’s point of view, there is a science to setting the fee for breaking speeding laws at just the right level. The idea is to get as high as possible without making the penalty so high that people will actually fight it. Fighting a traffic ticket costs the government insane amounts of money when you consider that they have to pay a police officer to appear in court, a judge, and a prosecutor, as well as all of the other assorted court costs.
From our POV, the actual cost of the ticket should not be the real hang up. The far larger consideration is that your insurance costs will rise. Young people already pay the highest insurance rates in a society, so a ticket or two can really jack up the monthly amount taken out of your bank account. It’s these costs that add up far faster than the $200 slap on the wrist.
It's Not the Fine, It's the Insurance Hit
The hit to your insurance is also the reason why you should almost never take a plea deal when you fight a ticket. Just for showing up in court the judge will almost assuredly offer you 50% off of the ticket if you plead guilty and save the court a bunch of time and energy (our courts are generally so backed up that this is considered a good deal for them). Don’t take this offer. While you may pay as little as $30 or $40 upfront it will likely still affect your insurance. The cop, judge, and prosecutor may try to intimidate you, but don’t worry, you’re only fighting a small traffic ticket, it’s nothing criminal – it’s just a numbers game to fill government coffers, and a plea deal will almost assuredly affect your insurance no matter what the powers that be tell you.
I should also note that I personally got tagged once by a red light traffic camera. In this instance I opted to pay the fine instead of taking the time to go down to court and plead my case. The reasoning behind this was that red light traffic camera infractions cannot be held against you on your insurance since no one can prove it was you driving (the camera catches your car and sends the bill to whomever it was registered to). Fighting a red light camera ticket is a lot more difficult and the juice just isn’t worth the squeeze to me in terms of cost/benefit analysis. I think most people are probably better off paying the fine and moving on in this case since your insurance company won’t get involved and your true costs stay pretty low (exactly the thinking the government wants to encourage).
Fighting the Traffic Ticket
So you got a ticket for going 10% over the speed limit and the officer was not empathetic to your case. What are your best options if you want to dispute it? Here is what I learned after reading several Canadian-specific resources. Some of the rules do differ slightly from province to province but the broad process is applicable everywhere.
Step 1: You’ll win some of the time just by showing up.
When you make the decision to take a day off of work and go down to the court there is a decent chance the cop that gave you the ticket won’t be able to make it for a variety of reasons (sick, vacation, got tied up earlier in the morning with something else). As long as your offence wasn’t serious, this is almost always an automatic win.
Step 2: Immediately request disclosure.
After filing for a court date (details usually on the ticket) you’ll receive a letter telling you when your court date is. At this point (ASAP – do not procrastinate this step or you give the court some leverage) file for disclosure. This means that cop’s notes will have to be presented to you in advance of the hearing. I can say from personal experience that some law enforcement officers take excellent notes. A large number (I might even say a slim majority if I had to guess) take brutal notes. This is especially true percentage-wise if they are a young male officer – thanks to our public education system.
If an officer’s notes are inconsistent as to where the infraction was, what you were charged with, specifics about your car, or several other details, this might be enough to win the case all by itself. Worst case scenario, you still need to know what evidence there is against you in order to fight the charge.
If your ticket was given with a radar gun (as mine was) ask for a copy of the calibration records to be disclosed as well. Sometimes you can get lucky and the calibration will render the whole case invalid.
If an officer’s notes are illegible you can ask for a typed version at the trial and request an adjournment on that basis. Even if they are just generally bad quality, this dramatically improves the chances of the judge throwing the case out – remember, it’s all a numbers game, they don’t want to be tied down with someone who was 9km over the speed limit.
Finally, when you request the disclosure make sure and get names of people you are talking to so if documents don’t get to you, you have some accountability in place. In fact, I do this with almost all important documents. I also register all of my mail back and forth. If you’ve worked in an office before you know that these strategies work wonders. The prosecutors may ask you to come down and get your disclosure information if you provide a phone number (the idea is to inconvenience you enough to dissuade you from fighting the ticket – numbers game). Some advocate for only providing a mailing address. One way or another, make sure you get the disclosure.
Step 3: Keep track of your calendar.
The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms Secion 11 (b) states that (paraphrasing) you have the right to a fair and speedy trial. Basically, if your court date is over a year away from your offence, you can make the case that the courts should throw out the case on 11(b) alone. If you have done anything to postpone the case for your benefit this won’t work though, it has to be through no fault of your own. Some people advocate several delay strategies for the express purpose of claiming this law. I’m not sure I’d be that brave.
Step 4: If you’re going to lose don’t go to court.
If your court is being prompt and your officer had impeccable note-taking skills, then you might want to cash in your chips. If you had a more serious charge you might want to hire a lawyer, but then this article doesn’t really apply to you. Often the prosecutor will cut the ticket in half to get a guilty a plea. At least this gives you some value for the time you spent so far, but the point of keeping your insurance down will likely be null and void.
Common Mistakes to Avoid When Fighting Speeding Tickets in Court
There are numerous professionals that will jockey for your money with promises to get you out of your ticket. The truth is that most of these people will simply advise you to take the plea deal they “get you” (that would have been offered anyway) and hope that the officer doesn’t show up.
If you have a case or don’t see the officer in the room for the start of the court session don’t take a plea no matter what intimidation tactics are used. Remember, the worst case scenario here is that they’re going to make you pay the ticket that you already have.
If you plead “guilty with an explanation” that is still a guilty plea and will affect your insurance. “Not guilty” is what you want to leave with.
Do You Know How Fast You Were Going?
Let’s be honest for a second – this is kind of a weasely way out. The best case scenario is simply not to speed and not have any reason to get a ticket. If you find yourself in a situation like I did however, where plainly the intent was to prove that the local law enforcement was doing something as opposed to actually protecting society from anything, then this process gives you the best chance to get your ticket tossed out and off of your record. If I got the same ticket today, I might just make the calculated decision to pay it as opposed to taking the time off of my relatively well-paying job and footing the bill for my substantial travel costs (travelling in from a rural area). So it’s definitely not worth it for everyone.
Have you ever been to court to fight a speeding ticket? What were the results? Did you notice anything in any of the cases before you? Was it worth it in the end?