In the 1990s, traffic tickets were basically regulatory tools. The state did not really want the traffic ticket money. Instead, the state wanted people to be better drivers. So, fines were low and defensive driving eligibility requirements were loose. Many people simply paid the minimal fine and forgot about it.
But today, traffic tickets are revenue-raising tools. The state wants the money. So, fines are much higher. You could still pay the fine and move on, but that fine will be at least several hundred dollars, in most cases.
In the 1990s, traffic tickets were also rather easy to defend. Pretty much any attorneys with active law licenses could handle these matters, even if they had never set foot in traffic court before.
Unfortunately, those days are gone as well. However, it’s still possible to successfully defend traffic tickets in many cases.
Typos on the Ticket
According to popular myth, if there is any misspelling or other typographical error on your ticket, the judge must throw it out of court. That’s partially true. But there are some other factors at work.
One is a legal doctrine called idem sonans. This phrase is Latin for “sounds alike” and Legalese for “close enough.” So, if there is a minor mistake on the charging document, which is called the information, a Cobb County judge may let it slide.
The fatal variance doctrine may also come into play. According to the Catholic Church, there’s a difference between mortal sins, like murder, and venial sins, like gossip. Likewise, according to Georgia law, there’s a difference between a fatal variance and a non-fatal variance.
Assume I (Dean Phillips) was speeding in a 2015 Camaro on Interstate 75 near Mile Marker 160. The information states that Jean Phillips was speeding in a 2015 Cruze on Interstate 75 near Mile Marker 260. There are several errors, so let’s take them one at a time.
Idem sonans almost certainly applies to the Dean/Jean discrepancy. Granted, Dean is usually a guy’s name and Jean is usually a girl’s name. But nonetheless, they definitely sound alike.
Next, consider the Camaro/Cruze difference. There is a significant difference between these two vehicles. The Camaro is essentially a racecar, and the Cruze is essentially a station wagon. Arguably, there would be a fatal variance between the pleadings and the proof.
Finally, let’s look at the 160/260 difference. This discrepancy could be inconsequential, or it could be a very big deal. Mile Marker 260 of Interstate 75 is inside Cobb County. So, if Mile Marker 160 is across the line in Fulton County, the case was filed in the wrong county, and the Cobb County judge has no jurisdiction over the matter.
In these situations, alert prosecutors can simply amend the pleadings and move on. But if the prosecutor does not catch the error before trial begins, the judge may not allow that amendment.
Challenge to the Evidence
In all criminal cases, prosecutors must prove every element of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt. This rule is not quite as strict in traffic court, since traffic offenses generally carry no jail time. However, the doctrine remains in place, at least in principle.
So, challenging the evidence is often a very good approach. Let’s stay with my hypothetical speeding ticket for a moment. In Marietta, there are basically three ways for officers to support these citations:
- Pacing: An officer can estimate, or more like guesstimate, a vehicle’s speed. Sometimes, that’s fairly easy to do, if there are other cars on the road or there is a Point A to Point B reference. But if these things are absent, pacing is difficult. That’s especially true if the officer was standing still and/or was inexperienced.
- Radar: Most speeding tickets involve radar guns. These gadgets are accurate, but they are not very precise. If my Camaro was in a cluster of three cars and the officer used a radar gun, the device proves that one of those vehicles was speeding, but does not prove which one was speeding.
- LiDAR: Light Detection and Reading laser guns work differently than radar guns. A LiDAR gun shoots a beam of light at a vehicle and calculates its speed. LiDAR tickets are difficult to defend, unless there was a technical issue with the equipment or the officer was not properly trained in its use.
Most officers write more speeding tickets than anything else. These citations are objective and easy to prove in court.
Challenge the Officer’s Conclusion
Many other citations, on the other hand, are subjective. Lane change violations and other such infractions in Title 40 of the Georgia Code often contain words like “unsafe” or “unreasonable.”
Certain driving behaviors, like cutting across multiple lanes, are not unsafe if traffic is light. The defense is even stronger if the officer was in a poor observation position or unfamiliar with the prevailing traffic patters on that stretch of roadway.
Truth be told, however, this defense is a bit of a reach. If the officer says the driver’s actions were unsafe or unreasonable, the judge almost always sides with the officer.
Mistake of Fact
Ignorance of the law is no excuse. So, no matter how well-grounded the belief is, a mistake of law is never a defense to any criminal activity. But what about a mistake of fact?
Let’s return to my speeding ticket. Assume I pull off Interstate 75 and onto a side street. At a certain intersection, a tree obscures the stop sign. I don’t see the sign, and a nearby officer gives me a ticket.
Depending on the degree of obstruction, I may have a mistake of fact defense. The judge must decide, based on the evidence, if I could see the sign or not. My argument has more force if the stop sign was hard to see in the first place. Perhaps there was no reflective tape on the pole or the sign was attached to a utility pole.
Legal justification is almost always a defense to criminal activity. That’s true in serious felonies, like aggravated assault, and traffic tickets, like speeding.
Assume I was speeding on Interstate 75 because my wife was about to give birth at a nearby hospital. Strictly speaking, that situation is probably not a legal justification for speeding. The two events (my wife’s pregnancy and my car’s velocity) are not closely related. Nevertheless, a judge might still see a connection and allow the defense. If nothing else, these extenuating circumstances certainly affect my punishment.
Work with an Experienced Attorney
Traffic tickets are difficult, but not impossible, to defend. For a free consultation with an experienced criminal defense attorney in Marietta, contact The Phillips Law Firm, LLC. We routinely handle matters in Cobb County and nearby jurisdictions.