Snapshot of a Speeding Ticket
I recently wrapped up an interesting situation with a traffic ticket. It’s a good snapshot into some of the issues that come up when working with my clients.
The client hired me to contest a speeding ticket which is of course something I do. Like most of my clients with moving violations, the goal was to minimize fines and eliminate the impact to insurance. Speeding tickets bump up insurance premiums for three years, plus getting enough tickets in a period of time can result in having your license suspended. No one’s going to jail for a traffic ticket, but there are still consequences beyond the fine.
Whenever I’m hired to contest a ticket, the first thing I do is let the courts and prosecutors know I’m the lawyer on the case and request the full report from the issuing officer. The paper ticket a driver receives on the side of the road is not the only thing generated by the traffic stop. I always ask the prosecutor to provide the additional narrative report issued by the officer. If they can’t, or won’t, I’ll be able to have the ticket thrown out every time.
In Washington there’s no rule that an issuing officer has to appear in court if you contest your ticket. Instead the police report, the full one, is offered into evidence. Of course the officer can show up, but especially in the major urban areas, they don’t unless they’re formally subpoenaed. So the court relies on the written narrative. This has pros and cons for the driver.
Without an officer present, whatever that report says is what the prosecutor is stuck with. If the reports are solid, they’re admitted into evidence and there’s no person to cross-examine. But if they’re faulty, there’s no one to fill in the missing pieces.
There are foundational requirements for every kind of ticket, stuff that needs to be in there before a driver will actually have to pay. These are things like talking about the radar guns being in proper working order, making sure a measurement based on pacing was for the correct length of time, making sure that an officer who tags someone for a carpool violation actually says the driver was the only occupant, etc. These things are somewhat technical, or perhaps petty, but 1) if the government is fining its citizens it can at least follow the rules, and 2) if they can’t establish, for example, their equipment was working properly, why would a driver deserve this fines in the first place?
Now a lot of times, the written narrative is boilerplate, which is to say they’re copied and pasted into every ticket. Law enforcements knows foundational requirements, and they very often include the required language in the report. In fact some of the “reports” are fill-in-the-blank where the only discretion the officer has is to fill in the date, name, speed measurement, serial number of the radar gun, etc. This is to minimize the chance that the officer makes a mistake that can be exploited by someone like me. If the officer actually had to show up, their boilerplate would be worthless because they would have to individually testify from memory about the things that were pre-written. But as I said, if they showed up, they can fix holes in the report. “Of of course he was driving by himself. I forgot to include it in the report, but yes he committed a carpool-lane violation.” So permitting the officer to submit a report rather than testifying themselves is a mixed bag for the driver. Regardless, the rules allow it. In the courts I frequent, the officers do not show up and the case rises and falls on the quality of the report.
In the recent case I mentioned, I made the request for the full report. I received it but was obviously deficient and missing some key foundational information. There were serious gaps, enough that I felt confident I could get the ticket tossed. All good, right?
I thought so, but a week before the court date I get an email from an intern at the prosecutor’s office. I was told the issuing officer had just filled out a supplemental report and that this report happened to fix every deficiency in the original report.
This irked me to no end. One, because my sure-thing dismissal became a lot less likely, and two because the report itself read as too convenient. For example, the supplemental report made a point of saying the officer had an independent recollection of the stop and ticket, which seemed suspicious considering the second report was a month after the initial traffic stop and the officer had issued hundreds of tickets in the meantime. Of course that language was required because otherwise the report wouldn’t be admissible.
Instead of calling the cop directly, I filed a public records request for all emails in the relevant time period between the prosecutor’s office and this officer (These kinds of requests are useful, and detailed more fully here). I didn’t want some story from the officer after the fact, I wanted to know what the impetus was for writing this supplemental report in the first place.
Sure enough I found in the records an email from the prosecutorial intern to the officer letting the officer know that without this supplemental information the ticket would be dismissed, and wouldn’t it be great if a supplemental report could be written? An hour later the officer sent back the panacea report.
Again, this smacked of too-convenient to me. The prosecutor let the officer know without the supplemental report the ticket would be scrapped, and here was the info they needed to stick it to the driver. And so, the officer simply issues a report about their “independent” recollection of that specific stop, and by the way, also here’s that necessary information the prosecutor’s office needed.
I considered whether the prosecutor actually broke the rules, and eventually determined she approached the line but didn’t quite cross it. Although the situation was suspicious, and reading between the lines it was rather obvious what was going on, the email from the prosecutor to the officer left open the possibility that the officer didn’t have the info they wanted. The prosecutor could have been more above board by acknowledging she made the request in the first place, but I couldn’t, quite, cry foul.
However! The supplemental report was also garbage. Missing citation numbers, wrong dates, and actually missing some of the info the prosecutor (accurately) said she needed. So while I had thought about making a stink about the supplemental report, instead I just laid low until the court date.
At the court hearing for contested tickets, there is one prosecutor to represent the office to negotiate or argue in front of the judge. In this case it was a different prosecutor than the one who emailed the offier. Our conversation before the judge got on the bench went like this:
- Prosecutor: I see you’re representing [Client]. I can offer you this much off the fine.
- Me: I want you to dismiss the ticket. It has a lot of problems.
- Prosecutor: Didn’t you see the officer’s supplemental report? I think it fixes any issues.
- Me: I did see the report. I don’t think it’s admissible for these [large number] reasons.
- Prosecutor: Hmm. I agree with you on the supplemental report. But I think I can proceed with the original report, even though it’s not ideal.
- Me: Well I disagree that you can go forward on it. And in fact, here’s a letter from your office to this cop saying “We won’t be able to win unless you provide XYZ.” And you still don’t have XYZ.
- Prosecutor: Yeah you’re right. I’ll dismiss the ticket.
And so she did.
Now in the grand scheme of things, this was a very minor court case. And I’ll be the first to admit things don’t always go that well. But I’m happy I was able to push back at each stage and gather the resources needed to get this client the desired result. This is what I try to do as a lawyer, identify weak areas, keep my client’s goals front-and-center, and use the tools at my disposal to try to make it happen.
For this case, the client was happy and that’s good enough for me. If you or someone you know needs an attorney for traffic issues or other matters, feel free to give me a call.