Not everyone can afford an attorney and hiring an attorney doesn’t make sense in every case, so if you are representing yourself in traffic court here in Virginia, here are some tips to help you get what you want.
1) Read the law that you are accused of breaking. On your summons, there should be a place where it tells you a description of the law you are accused of breaking and the code section for that law. Look up that code section online and read it so you can know exactly what the law allows or doesn’t allow. Every day, people come to court to argue their tickets when it is obvious that they do not understand what they are accused of doing. This wastes everyone’s time, including their own, and in the end, the judge just ignores them because their arguments are irrelevant. Make sure you read the law and know what law you are accused of breaking.
2) Get a free consultation. Most traffic attorney will do a brief free consultation so before going into court by yourself, talk to a professional to get an idea of what the courts might do and what strategies might help. Attorneys can also help you avoid common mistakes. For instance, in Virginia speeding can be a criminal jail-able offense, and many people don’t realize that until it’s too late. So get a free consultation. If you are charged with a criminal or traffic matter in Northern Virginia, call us at (703) 215-1114 for a free consultation over the phone.
3) If you have a good driving record, bring a copy of that record to court, especially if you are from out of state. The court usually does not have access to out-of-state DMV records, so bring your good record to court to show off.
4) You can do a trial by letter for minor tickets. If you can’t make it to traffic court most jurisdictions in Virginia and other places will let you write a letter to the judge. This works well with “fix it” tickets. So for example, if you get a bad brake light ticket, go get the brake light fixed and mail a copy of the receipt to the judge with a picture of the fixed tail light and a very short letter explaining the situation to the judge. Most judges will dismiss the ticket or dismiss it with court costs based on the documentation that you sent them.
5) Don’t leave your evidence in the car or keep it on your phone. Most courts in Virginia will not allow cell phones in the building and the judge usually will not give you an opportunity to run out to your car to get something. If something you need isn’t with you at the podium, then you are usually out of luck.
6) Find out whether or not your case will be assigned a prosecutor and talk to the prosecutor as soon as you can. Some courts assign prosecutors to traffic cases, some do not. Some only assign prosecutors to cases with attorney. Others have the officer act as a prosecutor. Some courts have no prosecutors at all and the officers are not allowed to act as prosecutors. Call the prosecutor’s office and ask them whether or not they assigned prosecutors and when those prosecutors are available to discuss traffic cases. If you don’t like what the prosecutor offers you, then simply take your case directly to the judge instead.
7) Trying to get a continuance to see if the officer doesn’t show up, rarely works in Virginia. In Virginia, officers are assigned one day every month or two to prosecute all of their cases. If an officer doesn’t show up to court, it’s not just your case that is gone, but a month or two worth of work. Officers can be charged with criminal contempt of court for failure to show up and I have seen officers served warrants for not showing up. Officers can lose their jobs or hurt their careers by blowing off a single court date. If an officer is sick or injured or delayed getting to court because of police business their supervisor calls the court and gets their cases moved to their next court date. Typically, cases will only be dismissed if the officer is no longer with the police force. This happens less than 1% of the time.
8) Don’t tell the court to correct your date of birth or your name or your driver’s license number. When officers and clerks put your information onto a summons or into the court system, sometimes they make mistakes. After your case is over, your information is forwarded to your state’s DMV to be recorded on your DMV record. If an officer gets your driver’s license number, name, date of birth, or any other information wrong that will make it hard for the DMV to know whose record the ticket belongs on. In Virginia, these kinds of typos are not defenses and do not affect the outcomes of most cases, so by pointing them out to the court, all you are doing is helping the court make sure that this ticket ends up on your record.
9) Know what the judge has the power to do. In Virginia judges have no control over how many demerit points are assigned to a ticket, in Maryland judges sometimes can choose how many points to give a driver. In Prince William County, judges have the ability to offer the driving school in exchange for a dismissal of a ticket, in Fairfax County the judges do not have that power. In Virginia, HOV tickets have mandatory fines that the judge must enforce. So before you go to court and ask the judge to do something, make sure that the judges have the authority to give you what you are asking for. If what you are asking for is something unusual, find the case or statute that gives them the authority to do what you are asking and print off a copy and bring it to court to give to the judge.
10) If you are going to quote case law or statutes, print it off and bring it to court. Judges don’t have a lot of time in traffic court to stop everything and do legal research. So if you are going to quote laws or court opinions, bring copies with you to court to give to the judge to read. If you don’t the judge may just ignore it.
11) Understand what laws and cases govern the court you are in. In our legal system laws only have power in certain jurisdictions. For example, Ohio law has no power in Virginian courts and Virginia law has no power in an Ohio court. Likewise, the opinions of a Maryland Court are not binding on a Virginia court. For the most part, Federal laws and federal cases (except for the US constitution and federal cases interpreting the US constitution) do not have any authority over state or city courts. Also, unpublished court opinions do not have any legal authority in Virginia courts. If you are going to quote laws and cases in court, you have to understand these rules well or you will be wasting your time.
12) Your behavior and appearance matter. If you are trying to convince a judge that you are telling the truth, that you are a good person, that you are a responsible driver, then dress like it and behave like it. Dressing up and being polite won’t win your case, but being sloppy or rude can hurt it.
13) NEVER lie to the court. You have a right to remain silent, but lying under oath is a crime and a bad idea. No situation is so bad that it can’t be made worse by being caught lying to the judge.
14) Understand how trials are done. In Virginia the police officer or prosecutor gets to tell their side of the story first, after they are done, you get to just ask them questions only. Then you get your chance to tell the court what happened (only if you want to) and then the officer or prosecutor gets to ask you questions if you choose to speak. If the judge finds you guilty, then you repeat the process more informally and quickly with evidence related to punishment.
15) Get to the point very quickly!!!! In Fairfax County, one judge has to hear about 200 traffic cases in 5 hours. That means that the judge has only slightly more than a minute per case. If you ramble and go off-topic most judges will shut you down for the sake of everyone else waiting their turn. So get to the point as quickly as you can, while you still can!
16) Write down your story and read it to the court. Traffic court is not a drama club, simply communicating effectively is more important than being a good orator. Write your thoughts down beforehand so that you can be quick, clear, and to the point.
17) Understand the difference between mitigating evidence and defense. A defense is an argument or evidence that you are not guilty of a crime. Mitigating evidence is evidence that you should be shown mercy despite being guilty. Present mitigating evidence after you have been found guilty and present defenses before you are found guilty, not the other way around. So for instance. Saying “The officer’s radar device was not calibrated!” is a defense. Saying, “My speedometer was broken so I didn’t realize I was driving that fast.” That is mitigating evidence. So don’t present the speedometer evidence before you are found guilty, but instead do it during sentencing. And don’t argue about the calibration after you are found guilty and while the judge is deciding your punishment, talk about the calibration during the trial.
18) Choosing whether to plead Guilty, Guilty with explanation, Not Guilty, or No Contest. No Contest means Guilty in Virginia so really there are only two choices “Guilty and Not Guilty”. If you plead guilty there will be no trial and you will not be given an opportunity to present defenses. “Guilty with an explanation” is basically just a guilty plea where you plan on arguing your punishment. Judges rarely ever “punish” people for putting on a well-thought-out and respectful defense. As long as you are not rude or dishonest during your trial you will rarely be penalized for choosing to fight your case.
19) Accident cases get continued. Most jurisdictions in Virginia will not do a trial on the first court date if the case involved an accident or requires civilian witnesses. If you were ticketed because of an accident or if the officer wants to bring witnesses to court, most of the time the court will not have a trial on the first court date. Instead, if you plead Not Guilty on the first court date, the judge will then continue the case to give the officer or prosecutor a chance to bring the witnesses. So don’t be surprised if you wait all day in court and then have to come back again.
20) Go to traffic court and listen. You’ll hear similar cases over and over again and quickly get a feel for your judges. You can learn a lot from spending a day watching traffic court.
21) Appeals. In Virginia, If you don’t like the outcome of your traffic case you can appeal the General District Court’s decision to a new judge in Circuit Court within 10 days of the trial. You will be given a new judge, a new court date, and a new trial. The second judge will not know or care about what happened in the first trial. Your appeal is a complete do-over. If you have missed your 10 days window to appeal you can file a motion to rehear the case within 60 days instead.
22) If you miss your court date on accident or show up late to court, you can file a motion to rehear the case. Tell the judge why you missed your court date and the judge may place your case back on the docket and let your case be heard. Judges are more likely to reopen your case if you plan on just pleading guilty. So for instance. If you were found guilty in your absence of expired registration, and you have proof you fixed the registration, you can do a motion to rehear the case and bring proof that you got your car registered. Show the proof to the judge and he or she may dismiss the charge right then rather than set the case on the officer’s next court date.
Well, I hope these tips were helpful, if you have a criminal or traffic case pending in Northern Virginia and you would like a free consultation, call Nichols & Green PLLC for a free consultation at (703) 215-1114 or contact us online by clicking here.