Common Tread

Traffic tickets: How to beat the rap

Feb 26, 2016

I’m no road angel, but I’m also not getting locked up for my petty driving offenses, either.

I’ve been through “the system” enough to have a good idea of what works and what does not. With that disclaimer in place, know that I’m certainly no scholar of jurisprudence. My advice and a buck fifty will get you a cup of coffee at the diner.

To make these suggestions effective, I am going presume a few things to be true at the time of your detainment by law enforcement:

  • You are being pulled over for a traffic violation and only a traffic violation.
  • You are not transporting a weapon (legally or illegally doesn’t matter, it complicates the issue beyond the scope of a quick “tips” article).
  • You are not transporting booze or drugs.
  • You are not under the influence of booze or drugs.
  • You do not want a ticket.

What I am not presuming is that you're innocent or guilty. I'm not discussing ethics or what's right or wrong. The following is just one non-lawyer's advice on handling a standard traffic stop, when there's no sketchy stuff in the saddlebags or in you, and you just want to avoid a ticket.

Before you get stopped

This section requires you to research without a reason. If you’re the type of person who is likely to be stopped for a traffic violation, you’ll be thankful you did some homework.

Don’t break the law. I know an old cop who loves to tell people the best way to avoid speeding tickets is to not speed. Sounds stupid, but sometimes checking yourself and issuing yourself a ticket mentally can shock you back into riding a bit more prudently.

Know the penalties. If you’re going to scoot around with a taillight out, recognize what that might cost ya. If your state has draconian fines for gross speeding, find out about them before you get popped for it. You’d be surprised how knowing the consequences can affect your riding. Similarly, small fines on hard-to-check items sometimes mean you can willfully ignore a law with little consequence. For instance, I may or may not have a garage filled with uninspected motorcycles, if you get my drift.

Talk to a lawyer. This is a waste of money, until it’s not. You’ll gain some insight on important issues that may not be immediately evident and how the court system works in your town or state. You’ll also find out if this is someone you want to represent you in court. It’s way easier to figure that out before you have a pending court date.

Know how they’ll catch you. Some law enforcement groups use aircraft to catch speeders. Some use radar, some use lasers, and others just use the good old-fashioned “painted-lines-and-a-stopwatch” method. If I’m booking down a backroad in Pennsylvania and see those double white lines running perpendicular to my direction of travel, you know I’m putting the anchors out. Similarly, if I know I’m in a state where the Smokies use lasers, I ain’t running too fast. Those things are nearly foolproof.

Break one law at a time. If your bike’s uninsured and you’re splitting lanes while going 20 over the posted limit, the cop is going to have a field day with you. It’s a hell of a lot easier to talk your way out of one ticket than multiples.

Spread your risk out. If you are speeding in a group, your odds of being ticketed are a lot lower than speeding all by yourself. A lone motorcycle booking down an open road is an easy mark for an idle police officer. Getting a speed on a bike in traffic, however, can be like threading a needle.

traffic stop
Things to do and not to do during a traffic stop. Photo by Scott Sorenson.

As you’re being stopped

A cop is behind you with the cherries and berries lit up. Swear loudly. Then breathe. Here’s some other stuff you might want to think about doing:

Pull over. Pull over safely, onto a shoulder. Slow down if you were blasting along. Throw your hazard lights on if you have them on your bike, and look for a safe spot for you and the nice police officer to pull over. If Johnny Law has to risk his life to come up to the bike and tell you to move somewhere safer, that’s a bad start.

Hands on the bars, chucklehead. That cop sees you as a filthy biker just waiting to perpetrate a felony. Leave your hands where he can see ‘em, and you’re a lot less likely to be looking at the flashy end of a Glock. Don’t get off the bike until told. Throughout the course of the entire stop, don’t make any quick movements.

Get passive and polite. You don’t want a ticket, so be friendly and mellow. You can act like a tough guy if you want to, but you’re upping the odds of receiving a performance award. If you want the cop to cut you a break, don’t be an asshole. Cops are overworked and they’re all on camera nowadays. The job is high on stress and low on pay. There is no advantage to being prickly.

With that said, you can politely refuse items like, say, a search of your person or vehicle. Being polite does not necessarily mean being accommodating.

Admit nothing. I don’t care if you were successfully testing the top speed of your motorcycle, act surprised and say you thought you were three under the limit. It’s the cop’s job to prove you broke the law. If he asks you why he pulled you over, guess what? You don’t know. The cop just popped you via radar; he’s only asking you to get you to solidify his case. You need to know how fast you were going, and you were going two under the speed limit, capisce? Otherwise, the ticket he’s about to write you is a slam-dunk.

Haggle. Politely. There is absolutely no reason in the world you cannot ask the cop to consider writing you a warning or a lesser charge than whatever he says you earned. Especially if you indicate you’re likely to just pay the lesser ticket as opposed to showing up in court, you can often convince a police officer to take it easy on you. Remember, there are multiple points where you can negotiate for the outcome you want. The side of the road is the first. Don't admit guilt. Merely ask for the reduced charge or a warning.

Knowing the laws (remember that from before?) can be helpful here. You may want to ask for a charge that carries no points, like an equipment violation. Often cops have to write you for something, but if it’s a ticket you both can live with, everyone wins.

You’ll have to figure out if you want to fight the reduced charge. Sometimes it’s a good idea, but if you do that, you may also hose another motorcyclist. If you fight a cop after he cut you a deal, how do you think he’s gonna treat the next dude on a bike? In many places, the judge will simply whack you with the bigger charge if you go to court with no good defense.

Know who it is that just popped you. A single cop will sometimes show up to court for all the tickets in court that day. That cop might not be the one who pulled you over, which makes winning your case a lot easier. Get at least a name if not a badge number. Later, compare this to the cop who shows up to bring witness against you. If Officer Bob writes you a ticket, and Officer Jim shows up to court, his testimony will probably be interesting, to say the least.

After you’ve been stopped

You’ve got plenty to do at this point. Keeping a cool head helps.

Save the ticket. There’s lots of good info on there. You’re going to scrutinize this later. In most places, there is some provision for a cop to rectify a clerical error made on a ticket. If he botched up your bike’s color or is off a little on the year, it’s probably not enough to invalidate the ticket, but if there are errors in material fact, that can be a good thing for you. If the time of day (or the day itself!) is way off or the location is grossly incorrect, you may be able to argue the validity of the entire ticket itself.

The ticket tells you what to do next. Regardless of whether you’re paying the ticket, entering a guilty plea in court (guilty with an explanation), not guilty, or nolo contendre, the ticket usually has the information you need about where to show up or where to mail the required documents. Don’t toss it!

Revisit the scene of the crime. If there was an obscured traffic sign, a precarious road condition, or some other mitigating factor that kept you from obeying the law, head back there with your camera. A photo can be a boon in court.

Go read the law. Most tickets in most states require the officer to cite the statute you’re in violation of. Go read it! For instance, do you know the difference between an absolute and a presumed speed limit? That’s important. Or that law enforcement may only be authorized to use certain equipment to catch speeders?

There could be a provision in the law to allow the alleged infraction you have been accused of. For instance, many states now have something written into the vehicle code to allow a motorcyclist to disregard a red light that is not changing to green appropriately.

Go to court. Unless you make a billion dollars a year, fighting a ticket is usually in your best interest. For starters, you may have the chance to cut a deal (again) with the cop, the prosecutor, or the judge. Case in point: Here in Pennsylvania, traffic tickets go to traffic court. If you are found guilty, you automatically have the right to appeal to the Court of Common Pleas, with a different judge and a different prosecutor. Every stop along the way is another chance to cut a deal or beat a ticket with little or no downside to you. You’re innocent until they prove you guilty. Make ‘em earn their paychecks.

In most places, a no-show cop is as good as no ticket. There may come a point where a police officer decides your ticket just isn’t worth fighting and doesn’t show up. Delay court if possible. Cops take vacations, get transferred, and retire. Hell, the cop might literally forget who you are. He writes a jillion tickets a day. Remember, you’re not just fending off the fees associated with the ticket, but the points that get assigned to your license. The savings in insurance hikes over the course of a few years literally could be enough to buy a new bike.

Get a lawyer. And take him to court, too. This is a big one. I can’t tell you if your situation requires a lawyer or not, but if you can afford one, you probably will find out why lawyers cost a couple bucks. They’re usually worth it!

Even with a lawyer, make sure you have your day in court. If your lawyer’s urging you to take a deal you’re not comfortable with, tell him to get stuffed and get a new lawyer. Heck, if you ask me, I’d say you’re better off defending yourself vigorously than paying someone to get you a bad plea deal. Cops love speeders, and small towns love lazy lawyers.

Huddle up. You need a game plan before you walk into court. If you got whacked for speeding, say, knowledge of how a radar gun can be affected by weather is good knowledge to have. Were you in a group of bikes? Did the officer ID the correct bike? Are there any discrepancies between the ticket and real life? Anything you can prove? I have fought a ticket successfully because a patrolman claimed I was at a given place and time and my state-issued toll receipt said that it wasn’t possible. Don't just go in hoping to get out of your ticket. Put together some flavor of defense.

Don’t be a wise-ass to the judge. I’ve held my tongue more than I wanted to. I also have not been convicted of most of the traffic violations I have been accused of. These facts are related.

Every scenario is unique. Again, I’m not a lawyer. (Shocker, right?) Traffic violations can be fought, and they should be. If you’ve got some advice of your own, let’s hear it!