Traffic Court: Survival Tips for Police Officers

By Morrison, Richard D. | Law & Order, June 1999 | Go to article overview

Traffic Court: Survival Tips for Police Officers


Morrison, Richard D., Law & Order


Probably nothing spoils a perfect day like receiving a subpoena for traffic court. Usually, the case involves a violator you hardly remember and a quick check of your notes is all you have to remind you of the violation.

Although most violators pay the fine and never go to court, there is always one who decides he or she can beat the system. In fact, in too many cases they do beat the rap. Unfortunately, the reason they are found innocent is because the officer failed to prepare for court.

Proper preparation begins with making adequate notes at the time of the violation. Simply scratching a few notes on the back of the ticket may not be sufficient a month or two later when you testify. All violations require certain basic information be recorded in case you should need it later.

Two primary items which may be important later include weather conditions and traffic conditions. These facts may become important if the violator asks you to describe them in court. The same is true in case some alibi given by the violator is in dispute with your recollection of the conditions.

One important factor in speeding cases will be any other traffic present at the time. This is especially true if radar is used. Typically, the violator will always say, "It was the other vehicle, not me." Unfortunately, the violator can say anything even if it is not true. So you have to be prepared to defend your actions.

If the area is a school zone, hospital zone, residential or otherwise, you should note it. The same goes for passengers, eyeglasses and cellphones if they were in use. The violator may bring a witness to court and you need to be reasonably sure it is the same person if, in fact, there was a passenger.

Be sure to check for speed limit signs and be able to tell the court how far back the violator passed the sign prior to the stop. If the sign is missing or hidden by a tree limb and the violator brings a picture to court, you could be on the losing end. The same goes for stop signs. If the red is faded to dull aluminum, it may not meet the court's criteria for issuing a citation much less a conviction.

One thing more about the speeding case: be very careful if you ask the violator if he knows why you stopped him. He doesn't have to incriminate himself by answering truthfully. On the other hand, you must know why you stopped him or you are on a fishing trip and the judge won't be amused. In other words, be prepared just in case they try to turn it around and use it against you in court. A good lawyer will be sure to question you about why you stopped the defendant and why you didn't know why. Remember, all they need is a reasonable doubt.

In many jurisdictions, the police officer must present cases without the help of a prosecutor. As likely as not, the defendant won't have a lawyer either. But, if the violator is intent on beating the ticket, a lawyer may well be retained and the officer will find himself defending his ticket writing.

When testifying it is important for the officer to establish the following for the court:

Name and rank

What agency you represent

How long you have been employed and in what capacity

The type and amount of training you have received

What, when, where and how the violation occurred

The use of special equipment, if used, such as radar or VASCAR, including the calibration information on the unit.

The elements of the violation and how the violator committed the offense.

Note: If there is an obvious error on the citation be sure to bring it to the court's attention up front and make a motion to amend it. …

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