Traffic Ticket Know How
When I talk about my work as primarily a Seattle criminal defense attorney a lot of people think they will never need my services. “Oh, I’ve never been charged with a crime. It could never happen to me.” Many of my clients likely would have said the same thing before they were charged with a crime. It really can happen to anyone.
But another area of my practice involves traffic tickets. Everyone realizes someone can receive one of these almost anywhere. And people ask me about them frequently. Since it comes up so often: what should you know about infractions?
At the outset I will say I’m not printing a guide on how to beat traffic tickets. I don’t own such a guide, and I don’t think they actually exist. I know there are a lot of books and articles out there about “foolproof” methods to beat tickets, but I think they are efforts by the author to extract money from people who want to “beat the system.” See also: systems to beat slot machines, avoid paying taxes, etc.
I certainly have strategies for handling traffic infractions, but they are based on, at least, the allegations in the police report. In other words, I can’t possibly craft a strategy until I see what the officer alleged. A one-size-fits-all system is impossible. Different situations call for different tacks.
But I can offer some information about 1) the court process, 2) why tickets can get people in trouble, 3) some ways to avoid getting a ticket, or at least avoid making a bad situation worse, and 4) when you might want an attorney. One final disclaimer: I’m licensed to practice law in Washington State only, so this information is based on Washington law. Other states’ traffic codes may be radically different.
- Crimes versus Infractions
As I wrote a while ago, laws in Washington come in two flavors: civil and criminal. A crime is simply a law that can include jail time or prison in its punishment. Laws that don’t involve a loss of liberty are on the civil side.
Infractions are civil in nature. That means the worst that can happen when getting a ticket is that you pay a fine. You cannot be sent to jail for talking on your cell phone while driving or illegally parking in a handicapped spot. Big fines are definitely a possibility, but not jail time.
However, there is an exception to this. Get enough traffic tickets or fail to pay your traffic tickets and an order is sent to the Department of Licensing to suspend your driver’s license. Driving on a suspended license is a crime, which does trigger the possibility of jail time. So all in all, it’s not a good idea to ignore tickets.
- Moving versus Non-Moving Violations
Traffic infractions likewise fall into two categories: moving versus non-moving. The difference is usually obvious but there are some weird exceptions. Talking on a cell phone while driving is not a moving violation but sending a text message is. The penalties depend on the infraction itself, not the classification, so what the fine is does not depend on whether it’s a moving violation or a non-moving violation (fines are set by statute).
But the classification does matter for your insurance. Moving violations are reported to your auto insurance company while non-moving violations are not. Washington doesn’t have a point system like other states, so there’s sometimes less clarity on what your insurance company will do with the information. But, in my experience moving violations, and especially speeding tickets, will trigger an automatic rate hike. And this rate hike will last for a number of years.
- How to avoid traffic tickets and good practices when pulled over
I can start off by saying “slow down,” but that’s not too useful. Instead, I would suggest being aware of the times of day and locations where the police presence seems heightened. Off the top of my head, be extra cautious in school zones when school is beginning or ending and if you’re out when the bars are being let out. Just remember, if you think you’re running late now, you’re going to be a lot later once you’re pulled over.
But, let’s say you are pulled over. Is there anything you can do? Well, yes and no.
Understand that for police, traffic stops are among their most dangerous interactions. The officer knows absolutely nothing about you. Are you a wanted felon? Do you have guns? Odds are you’re not a threat, but if they’re wrong, they could be killed.
So, put the officer at ease. This means turn off your car, keep your seat belt on, don’t make furtive movements, put your hands on the steering wheel so the officer can see them all the time. In my younger days I was pulled over daily once in a great while. I can recall one time where I didn’t get a ticket specifically because I kept my hands on the wheel, putting the officer at ease. It’s no magic bullet, but anything that reduces their stress can’t hurt.
They’re going to ask you some questions once they’ve pulled you over. My stance on conversation is pretty clear: do not answer their substantive questions. Questions they want you to answer, that you don’t have to answer and don’t want to answer, include:
- “Do you know how fast you were going?”
- “Do you know why I pulled you over?” (Smartass answer: “You don’t know why you pulled me over?! What are we doing here?”)
- “Do you mind if I take a look in your trunk?”
- “Why were you speeding?”
- “Is there anything I should know about your driver’s license/warrant status/possessions?”
- “Have you seen this boy?”
You don’t have to be rude about it, but you really don’t have to help them make their case against you. There are times a driver is suspected of speeding but the radar didn’t work so the officer needs confirmation to issue the ticket. Without giving them that confirmation, the best the officer can do is run your license, tell you to drive safely, and send you on your way. When you’re pulled over, you do, as a matter of law, have to hand them your driver’s license and insurance and registration. After that? “I’m sorry, Officer, I’m not going to answer any questions” is both legal and encouraged. But even with all that, you may still get a ticket.
- Why hire an attorney?
To my knowledge, there’s no legal process in the country where you are required to hire an attorney. Getting a divorce or being charged with a crime or suing American Airlines? You can, technically, do any of that yourself.
But generally, there are good reasons to hire an attorney. The biggest one is, of course, that doing legal stuff is an attorney’s job. Almost everything that involves the courts is a one-shot deal: If things didn’t go well the first time, you don’t get to hire an attorney and try again. Hiring someone to make sure things are done right, when the stakes are high and you only have one chance, is usually money well spent.
Another reason to hire a lawyer is that an attorney is generally more familiar with the process and players than the person who doesn’t go to court for a living. That’s not to say there are back-alley deals or anything like that, but knowing the proclivities of a judge or a prosecutor never hurts. If a court knows a lawyer and appreciates their hard work for a client, why not buy into that reputation?
Finally, once someone has hired an attorney for a traffic ticket, it’s very rate that they have to go to court themselves. The attorney goes in their stead. Attorneys become a lot more affordable once you don’t have to miss half a day of work to wait around in court to fight a ticket (especially if you lose).
Are there times when you shouldn’t hire an attorney for an infraction? Non-moving violations, especially low-grade ones like expired parking meters, generally aren’t worth getting an attorney for. Since they’re non-moving violations, there’s no consequence involving insurance. If it’s a $500 parking ticket that’s one thing, but most are in the $45 range.
Ultimately whether you hire an attorney is a personal decision; whether you hire a particular attorney even more so. I give anyone who may need an attorney a free consultation. If you’re ever charged with a crime or receive a traffic ticket, give me a call. We’ll see if we can work together to get a good result.