how to represent yourself in traffic court

Your case has just been called. Confidently, you take your place before the judge.  With a smile, you say: “Good morning, your honor, I’m — insert name here — and I will be representing myself today.”

Speeding ticket? Unsafe lane change? Illegal left turn? Whatever the charge, there are a few general principals to consider when effectively representing your interests in a courtroom.

1) Relax. Judges are people. And so are lawyers (subject to some exceptions).

Anxiety is understandable.  It’s no accident that judges wear robes and sit on high perches. The state wants you to feel their authority.  It may seem silly now, but when you are there it just may throw you off.  Staying relaxed is the key to being able to think straight and communicate effectively.  Despite the suits and robes, you are still dealing with humans.

When you are in court court, you are simply conversing with people. By treating your interaction with the suits and robes as a conversation, you can be more persuasive because it looks like you are not trying to be persuasive. Get it? You are just telling your story, and the story has an underlying theme: justice will only be served by siding with me, your honor.

2) Law is a matter of language and circumstance.

If you only understand one thing about laws, it should be this: laws are written by the men and women of our fine legislatures, these laws are written in sections and subdivisions, with words and sentences, and cannot contemplate every situation that life provides. They are inherently imperfect.

Judges then read these words and consider the purpose those words seek to achieve, like less accidents and injuries. Generally a law will be broken down into elements. If x, y and z occur, then the offense has been committed. The law that prohibits operating a vehicle while using a cell-phone will require the operation of a vehicle (likely on a public road), and the use of a cell phone. Maybe you weren’t operating your vehicle–it was on but parked! Maybe you weren’t using your phone–it was in your hand but just to be moved to a safe location! See the wiggle room in language?

Now, the prosecutor then tries to convince the judge that the facts of your case satisfy all the elements of the offense. It’s the prosecutor’s burden and he or she has to prove it with facts. All you gotta do is prove that this burden was not met. Or present facts that prove that an element is not satisfied. Read your ticket for the law you broke, then search it on the Internet. Most states will have the law online. Go on, look it up.

3) Keep your perspective.

Good people sometimes break laws. The state is responsible for maintaining safe roads, which means keeping order. These are the two basic interests framing the court’s view of you situation. Zoom out and stay level.

4) Consider the policy behind the law- perhaps, under the circumstances of your case, enforcing the law will not further its policy goal.

Sometimes you just plain did it. But it was an accident; it was innocent. “Your honor, I know I crossed the street when I shouldn’t have, but this law was meant to protect pedestrians and drivers… and when I crossed the street, it was 9pm on a Sunday night, so there were no cars in sight… applying the law in my case just does not further the purpose of the law.” Feeling fancy? — “With all due respect, your Honor, strict adherence to the letter of the law–under these facts–simply will not promote justice.”

There are counterarguments here, but the point is to make the judge comfortable with ruling in your favor. The judge wants an orderly application of the law, but also wants to be fair. Make it easy for them.

5) Be pleasant.

There’s no upside to hostility. It will only make you look less credible. Plus, people will usually be nice back if you are pleasant in the first place. Act like a real richard and you’ll get treated as such. Don’t speak when others are speaking. If you disagree with something, you respectfully disagree. Try it out, its fun: “your honor, I respectfully disagree with the state’s position.”

6) Pictures and diagrams are helpful and add to your credibility.

You want to come off as organized, responsible and respectful. The point is to really give nothing to the judge that could push him or her away from your position. Draw a diagram or blow up a google map. Don’t just tell your story, show it. Look at your ticket again. Officer’s remarks? Road conditions? Weather? Show the whole story.

7) Try a more technical argument if needed.

Do some google research on your specific offense. See if you can find general advice on that specific offense. What you are looking for are things like jurisdiction/venue (did the state prove it/the court had the ability to enforce laws in the location you were cited?), or necessary police officer training or qualifications (is the officer trained to use the device? did he follow the proper procedures?).

8) Before charging on into court, know that most courts will charge fees if you contest your ticket and lose.

These fees might be more than your ticket itself. See if you can first contest the ticket by writing a letter (but this sometimes cost money too!).  Or maybe you just plain did it and there’s no fighting it. Think real hard on this one.

Good Luck. I think that to have judges and clerks and officers and you, all take the time to fight over a relatively small fine, is a waste. There must be a better way.

Drop a comment if you’ve got advice of your own!

Useful Links:

how to represent yourself in district court


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