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How to deal with a speeding ticket
A lot of people ask me what to do about a speeding ticket, since I'm very experienced at receiving them. Here are some notes that you may find useful. Note that some of these tactics apply specifically to California, so check local laws before trying these.

First, my disclaimer: Always drive within the safe limits of your car, your tires, the surrounding conditions, and yourself. Remember: even obeying local traffic laws does not ensure your safety in a car. Most drivers do not understand the complex interactions between the car, the driver, and the road. Almost all drivers unknowingly go beyond safe limits at times, even when they are below the speed limit. The best way to stay safe is to learn the true limits of cars through a Car Control Clinic. These programs will teach you the skills that could prevent an accident even if you don’t ever "drive fast".

Why you shouldn’t just pay the fine

Maybe you really were speeding. Maybe even if you weren’t, you’ve certainly sped at other times, so in an average sense, maybe you deserved this ticket. But here’s the thing: the motives of many traffic laws and their enforcement have long since departed from a concern for public safety, rule of law, or even deterring future offenders. (And I could write you a very long essay convincing you of that. A good project for another time.) For a long time now, across every state, county, city, and town, there’s only one motive, which takes precedence above all other considerations of morality, policy, and safety:

They just want your money.

If you accept this premise, then you can dismiss any moral or ethical question and get down to the economics of your ticket. Their goal is simply to get your money, and your goal is to have this cost you the least money using any legal means available.

So let’s begin.

The cost of a ticket

Getting convicted of a speeding ticket has a number of costs which are variously quantifiable. Like:
  • The fine:
    If you are convicted you will have to pay the ticket’s face value fine. But there are hidden costs, too:

  • Points:
    Most states have “points” that mark your DMV record. Getting convicted of a speeding ticket costs one point, and if you get enough (4 in a year, or 6 in 2) then you’ll lose your driver’s license. Points are free, but not being allowed to drive has big costs depending on how you live. So if you are a, um, frequent flyer, then you need to keep this number down.

  • Car insurance premiums:
    This is squishy. Your car insurance premiums will definitely be higher if you have points on your license. Too many and insurers may even refuse you, especially if you don’t have many years of driving experience. (New drivers pay high premiums even if they are not young.) So avoiding convictions will save you money, although it’s hard to know exactly how much.

  • Traffic school:
    There is a legal way to bribe your way out of a conviction (see below) which usually costs the entire ticket fine amount plus a school fee of $30-$80. Since points stay on your record for at least 3 years, this is cost-effective if you think your insurance premiums will increase by more than [fine]/3 dollars per year. It also avoids a point. I always do it, for instance.

  • Court costs:
    If you physically go to court, you usually have to pay extra court costs. Trial by written declaration avoids this, and is good for a number of other reasons. See below.

  • Your time and energy:
    Fighting a ticket doesn’t take a lot of your actual time, but it is a protracted process that hangs over your head for several months. If the stress of the process outweighs your desire to stick it to the man, then consider one of the more expedient options, such as just paying the fine and driving more slowly in the future.

About arguing

Some of the tactics below include dialogs of various kinds with the court. You should understand that, no matter how unjust you feel that your ticket was, it’s rare to be acquitted by arguing the substance or fairness of the ticket. The court usually sees these things as matters of your word against the police’s, and they typically side with the trained professional. (And also remember: they just want your money.) So if your best arguments are merely fair and logical, they will often fail.

Instead, there are specific procedural tactics (called “technicalities”, if you are a Republican) that are more effective, which I’ll mention below. Try those first.

And one other thing: NEVER LIE. Your traffic ticket is an infraction, but making false statements to the court is perjury and a felony in California. Not worth it. There are plenty of ways for you to legally not incriminate yourself, or to present facts that lead to a procedural dismissal without admitting guilt. So just plead not-guilty, and otherwise be truthful or remain silent in court, when talking to an officer, and on any document that you sign.

About stalling

In general, it’s good for you to make the entire process take as long as possible. Many things might change during the time that the ticket is pending, like policy changes, elapsed quarterly deadlines, and transferring officers. But most importantly, the longer you delay the moment when your arresting officer testifies against you, the less likely he is to effectively do so. Cops will not remember you 4 months later, especially if they never see you face-to-face again (see Trial by Written Declaration below). So they have to keep records of your ticket in order to make their arguments in court. The older those records are, the better the odds that they’ll be lost. If that happens, you win. (This sounds far fetched, but it happens very frequently: about 30% of the time with written trials in California. See below.)

Tactic #1: Traffic school

Most tickets allow you to conceal the ticket point from your DMV record by “taking traffic school”. Unless you feel very confident that this is the only ticket you're ever going to get in your life, I recommend you take this option if it's offered.

The rules state that you should do it only once per 18 months, although you can get around that sometimes, see below. Technically you are being convicted, but the point doesn’t go in your total and your insurance company doesn’t see the conviction. If your insurance company would otherwise raise your premiums, this could be cheaper in the end. (Traffic school was invented precisely to allow municipalities to take their profit from traffic tickets without letting insurance companies over-react and spoil the pie. It’s a good racket.)

Most counties allow online traffic school, which you can do in as little as a couple hours with a standard web browser. Never do in-person traffic school if you can avoid it--- it takes much more of your time and you have to do it at specific hours and at a specific location.

(By the way, please don’t imagine that “traffic school” is about remediation. Once you’ve done it you’ll see how little they care about you being “schooled” in anything. So go ahead and do the online version, breeze through it, learn nothing. It’s what they expect. Remember: They just want your money.)

Tactic #2: Confuse-o-gram

This tactic is at least good for stalling, and can sometimes result in your ticket being dismissed, forgotten, or lost. I’ve made this work on courts large and small, but it works the best if you got your ticket in a rural area. (In a tiny town, your “court house” will often be a local official’s home answering machine; the “clerk” is his wife; the arresting officer, his neighbor. These people have lives, day jobs, and no expertise or processes for dealing with the corner cases of the law. Once you don’t just roll over and mail them a check on the first try, they are likely to miss deadlines or even give up entirely.)

The key thing here is that your legal obligation is to post bail by the deadline, and correspond with the court in good faith. The “bail” amount is always just the amount of the fine, and if they don’t get it, they will escalate. (Remember, they just want your money.) But as long as you send them the bail amount by the deadline, you do not have to give them their courtesy notice or any specific form with the correspondence. Doing so makes it easier for them to process your conviction, so don’t.

Instead, write a letter with your bail. In the letter, don’t admit guilt, but instead put requests, conditional instructions, or otherwise explain circumstances. Here are successful tactics I’ve used:
  • For small towns, I’ve asked for the infraction to be changed to something else, like “failure to obey a sign”, or a parking ticket. They didn’t ever finish the process.
  • Say that you are “unsure of your eligibility for traffic school” and then ask for traffic school instead of a conviction. This once caused a Clerk in San Jose to assign me traffic school even though it wasn’t offered on my courtesy notice.
  • Include a check for more than the bail amount, and conditionally ask for traffic school if you are eligible, and a trial by written declaration if you are not. The clerk might go ahead and do it, or they might send you back the whole thing saying that it was an invalid request. But it does cause a delay, which is good for you.
  • On a second try, include all of the previous correspondence that you’ve gotten from the previous clerk, and then pretty much rephrase your request and send the whole thing to the court again. This once caused the clerk to assign me traffic school without further correspondence, probably out of frustration.
  • Request the form for Trial By Written Declaration. You can certainly get it off of the DMV web site, but why do that when you can waste time by asking for it from the clerk?

In a small town, the court may never write you back. If that happens, they may never cash your check. Or, they may have kept your money but not processed your conviction, which is like cheap traffic school. Or, they may have convicted you without further correspondence, which is illegal. (You have the right to a trial.) You’ll have to check with them or possibly with the DMV to find out what happened, and then follow up. But whatever happens, you’ve probably won: they may never finish the paperwork.

A large, business-like court will probably not drop the ball, so eventually you will have to follow the instructions in their response and get closure on the ticket. If you didn’t get traffic school out of the process, Trial By Written Declaration is a good next step.

Tactic #3: Trial by written declaration

In California you have the right to a “Trial by written declaration” for infractions, which allows you to submit a plea, facts, evidence, and a statement by mail. This has several advantages:
  1. It’s slow. Mail has to be sent and received, and the court has to allow X days to pass for all sides to submit their evidence. See above about stalling.
  2. Even if you are convicted, you still have the right to a “Trial de novo”, another in-person trial after that. Two chances is better than one.
  3. It avoids court costs and a court visit.
  4. It’s unusual, so the court doesn’t process it with the usual grist-mill just-get-the-money mentality. Small town clerks are likely to just miss the deadlines completely and you get your procedural acquittal.
  5. It is more paperwork for the police, which they must return within a narrow deadline, and for which they are not compensated.
This last bit is the key. In many counties a police officer can get overtime pay for his in-person court appearance. During this appearance, he will see you, remember you, and make a personal appeal to the judge. These are all bad things for you. Better to ask the police to fill out paperwork, which they hate, and are not as likely to do before the deadline passes.

All in all, The Internets claim that Trail By Declaration has a 30% chance in your acquittal even if your statement and evidence are worthless. You could write “I AM NOT GUILTY” in orange crayon on your statement and mail it, and still have a worthwhile shot at a procedural acquittal. My personal record is roughly 1 conviction for 3 acquittals, not counting my Confuse-o-grams that resulted in traffic school.

At the end of your statement, it doesn’t hurt to include a paragraph like “In the event that I am convicted, I would like to ask the court to send me to traffic school and mask the conviction on my DMV record”. The odds are poor that they’d give you traffic school after a written declaration, so if traffic school is what you want, do it first.

(Note: If you are convicted by mail, you have only a limited time (10 days I think) to request your Trial-de-novo, if you want it. I’ve never had this happen to me, but I’ve read online that courts sometimes don’t mail a notice of conviction until after the TDN deadline has passed. If you’re worried about this, you’ll need to call the court to find out if you were convicted, so you can make your request in time.)

Tactic #4: Court appearance

I’ve not done this in many decades. As I said above, defending yourself by appealing to the facts or fairness of the ticket is not likely to get you acquitted. However, making a personal appeal to the judge during sentencing can be effective. You will not be able to avoid the fine (Remember: they just want your money) but you might be able to talk your way into traffic school or maybe community service or something, in lieu of points.

Procedural defenses

There are some defenses that often work in California, which you can try in the body of your Written Declaration, or in person. If you hire a lawyer, he will use one of them and get you acquitted unless your ticket was pretty bad. The details are available in for-pay “get out of your ticket” packages online, but my understanding is that they’re one of:
  • Discrediting the policeman’s radar / laser equipment or training
  • Pointing out that the speed zone survey for the road you were ticketed on was not proper (this is common), and therefore that you were caught in an illegal “speed trap”.
  • Showing that certain notification deadlines were missed (for photo tickets)
  • Arguing that the evidence is too weak to convict beyond reasonable doubt (for photo tickets)
I have a friend who used these defenses in a written declaration to get acquitted, so it clearly works. I don’t want to know how much time he spent on that. ;) But as I said, there’s a decent chance that you could get acquitted by mail without any reasonable defense.
The views expressed on this site are mine personally, and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer.