During the Case
In California, a person who gets a traffic ticket can often take care of it without ever going to a courthouse.
For example, for an infraction ticket you usually can:
- Plead guilty and pay the amount of money due by mail or on the Internet.
- Plead guilty, pay your bail, and call or write to ask to be allowed to attend traffic violator school. If you are eligible to attend traffic school, when you have completed the school send the certificate of completion to the court and you will not get “a point” against your driver’s license.
- Get the mechanical problem corrected as required for a “fix-it” ticket, have an authorized person sign the “Certificate of Correction,” and mail the Certificate – with the fees shown on your courtesy notice – to the court before the deadline.
- Get the car registration or driver’s license problem taken care of at the Department of Motor Vehicles, have DMV staff sign the “Certificate of Correction,” and mail the Certificate – with the fees shown on your courtesy notice – to the court before the deadline.
- Show proof of having had a valid insurance policy when you received the ticket by getting a form from your insurance company that shows that the insurance:
- was in effect on the date you were cited;
- covered the vehicle involved, and covered the person driving the vehicle.
- Then take or mail the insurance company form to the court along with your dismissal fee before the deadline.
However, there may be cases that need to be decided by a judicial officer in court:
- If you got a ticket for a misdemeanor, you will have to go to court.
- If you got a ticket for an infraction and think you’re not guilty, you will have to go to court.
- If you did not have a valid insurance policy when you received the ticket you will have to go to court.
Although this is handled differently in different courts, some courts allow you to plead guilty and pay the fees in installments, or to do community service. If your court allows this, you may have to go to court.
If you decide to plead “not guilty’ on an infraction citation, you may schedule a court trial date by going to the Traffic Clerk’s Office before the due date on the citation.
- The Traffic Court clerk will give you a trial date.
- The officer who issued the citation will be subpoenaed to appear at the trial.
If you decide to plead “not guilty” to an infraction violation and cannot get to court, you can ask the court for permission to have a “trial by written declaration.”
- Typically, people ask for trial by written declaration if they live far away from the court where the case will be heard.
- These trials are given the same consideration as any other trials heard in the court.
You may request a “trial by written declaration” by going in person to the Traffic Clerk’s Office or by mailing a written request to the Court on or before the due date on the citation.
- Be sure to include your current address and the citation number with your request.
- The officer who issued the citation will be directed to also submit a written declaration and will be given a due date to return the declaration.
NOTE: You must pay the full amount of money owed to the court when your request is filed. The Court will place the bail in a trust account until after the court trial has been held and the judicial officer has made a ruling.
- If the Court finds you not guilty, or if the case is dismissed for any reason, the bail will be returned to you after the trial.
- If the Court finds you guilty, the bail that is held in trust will be applied to the fines and fees ordered by the judicial officer.
The judicial officer will review both declarations – yours and that of the officer who issued the citation – and will make a decision which will be sent to you by mail.
See “Instructions to Defendant” (Trial by Written Declaration) (Form TR-200).
If you decide to plead “not guilty’ on a misdemeanor citation, you must go to court.
The date and place will be shown on your ticket (unless the court sends a notice telling you a different date for your hearing).
- The officer who issued the citation will be subpoenaed to appear at the trial.
NOTE: You must show up. If you “fail to appear,” your driving license can be suspended and the court can charge you with another misdemeanor and issue a warrant for your arrest.
In court, traffic hearings may only last 10 to 15 minutes. Since you will only have a few minutes in front of the judge, you will need to be organized. So start preparing for your day in court as soon as possible.
1. Plan what you are going to say.
Decide what your main points are. Try to think of what the law enforcement officer who issued the ticket might say and how you will answer.
How to tell your story in court:
Be quick and to the point, and stay calm. Here are some tips:
- The first thing you need to say is why you are there. If you believe you are not guilty:
- Tell the judge your side of the story
- Say what happened, in the order it happened.
- Explain why the law enforcement officer who issued the ticket is wrong.
- Practice telling your story. If you can, practice in front of friends or family.
2. Arrange to bring things that support your story.
These are called "evidence." Examples of evidence are:
- Diagrams that show how the incident took place
3. Arrange to bring witnesses who saw or heard what happened.
- Don't bring people unless you know they will support you.
- Witnesses who are not friends or relatives may be more effective in proving your case. When the only witnesses are your friends and relatives, they should testify and present themselves in a professional, objective and calm manner.
If you don't speak English well:
Arrange to bring someone to court with you who can interpret for you. You want the judge to understand you.
In California, traffic hearings take place in a courtroom in front of a judicial officer – a judge or a commissioner. In the same courtroom there will also be a court clerk and a bailiff, and usually other people in the room. For example, there may be people waiting for their case to be heard.
The following are general guidelines. The actual rules may be different in each court, so learn your county's local rules of court on trial procedures. Find your county's court website.
At the beginning of your hearing, the judicial officer will ask each person involved to give his or her name for the court record. All witnesses will be sworn in. Then, the judicial officer will listen to both sides of the story in this order:
When your case is called, if both you and the “witness for the state” (usually the law enforcement officer who issued the traffic ticket) are present, you both are to go up to stand in front of the judicial officer.
- Because this hearing is the result of a law enforcement officer issuing a ticket, he or she will be asked to tell why the ticket was issued.
- Other witnesses may also testify for the state, depending on the evidence in the case.
- The law enforcement officer, or other witness, may have documents to give to the court – such as an Engineering Traffic Survey to support the introduction of radar evidence at the trial. You have the right to see such a report before it is handed to the judicial officer.
- The witness for the state may present facts on each of the contested issues, have witnesses tell what they know, and introduce documents.
- You should not interrupt any law enforcement officer or witness when he or she is speaking.
- When the law enforcement officer or witness is finished, you will have a chance to ask him or her questions based on the testimony and the facts necessary for the charges. This is called cross-examination, and has the following rules:
- Your questions should only be about what has already been discussed and other relevant facts.
- You must ask the witness one question at a time, and wait for the answer before asking your next question.
- You should not argue with the law enforcement officer or other witnesses.
- Next it is your turn. You may tell your version of what happened, have witnesses testify, and introduce photographs or diagrams to help the judicial officer understand your side of the story.
- The law enforcement officer should not interrupt you when you are speaking.
- The judge may ask anyone any questions at anytime. He or she will examine the evidence and then decide if you have broken the law or not.
- If you are found "not guilty", the court will return your fine.
- If you are found "guilty", you must pay the fine. In misdemeanor or felony cases, you can also go to jail.
NOTE: If you are found guilty of having committed a violation, you may still request traffic school.
- Dress neatly and respectfully.
- Take all of the documents that will be needed to show to the judge. Be sure you have copies for the other side.
- If you intend to call witnesses (other than you and the other side), and have filed and served a witness list, arrange for your witnesses to be present at court. Make sure they know where to go and that they allow plenty of time to find the courtroom. Give your witnesses a copy of this page so that they know what to expect.
- Be on time. Allow extra time for traffic or other possible delays. (If you are delayed or unable to attend the hearing due to a car breakdown, sudden illness, or other emergency, contact the department clerk on or before your hearing time.)
- Turn off your cell phone and/or pager when you enter the courtroom.
- When your case is called, walk to the table or podium in front of the judge and stand facing the judge.
- Be prepared to state your name and your relationship to the case.
- Speak clearly and loud enough that the judge can hear you. Speak only when it is your turn.
- When you speak to the judge, act respectfully and call him or her “your honor.” Be sure never to interrupt the judge.
- Answer all of the judge’s questions and stop talking immediately if the judge interrupts you.
- If you don’t understand something, say that you don’t understand. Someone will try to explain it for you.