Should You Fight or Pay That Ticket?
What to consider before you go to court to contest a ticket
The docket at Plymouth Circuit Court goes on for pages. The offenses run the gambit — burglary, drunk driving, child endangerment and various drug offenses — but on this day not a single trial for speeding or any other minor motor vehicle offense. It’s the same case all over New Hampshire.
“In the last two years, I can count on one hand the number of [speeding] trials I had,” says Gabriel Nizetic, a regional prosecutor for seven towns in the jurisdiction of Plymouth Circuit Court. “Before that, 200 a year.” He’s not alone: A full 80 percent of all minor motor vehicle offenses are resolved without a trial as a result of a three-year-old New Hampshire Judicial Branch initiative called an “early and mandatory pre-trial negotiation session.”
The process is pretty simple — if you plead not guilty to a minor motor vehicle charge instead of going right to court, then you go to a meeting with the prosecutor to try and find an amicable resolution. It’s part of trend of negotiating rather than litigating cases.
Lincoln Police Chief Ted Smith, while appreciative of aspects of the new plan, calls it “Let’s Make a Deal,” after the long-running television game show. Prosecutors and court officials say nothing has changed except for the order and place where deals are cut.
Previously, around 20,000 motor vehicle citations were challenged annually and each one had to be scheduled for a trial before a judge with the prosecutor, arresting officer (if they weren’t the same people) and any other witnesses. “It was a big waste of time,” says Attorney Nizetic. “Eighty percent didn’t show up or went to court without an excuse or a defense. Many just couldn’t pay.”
Nothing is more common in court than to see defendants, police officers and attorneys waiting around for their cases to be heard. Being able to cut the number of cases down allows for better management of the trial judge and clerical staff’s time. “Essentially, for every 16,000 plea-by-mail cases that are filed in the circuit court we save court time equivalent to one full-time judge,” says Circuit Court Administrative Judge Ed Kelly. “Put another way, the time saved by the plea-by-mail mandatory pre-trial system saves roughly 249 court days per year, which is the number of days a full-time court is in session each year.”
Municipalities see an upside as well since, as Chief Smith says, “towns get penalized. When we write tickets, we get nothing.” All revenue raised from fines goes directly to the state. Smith estimates that sending a police officer to court is a minimum of four hours of overtime. Many police departments also prosecute their own cases, so this means another officer is tied up as well.
Lincoln, along with several other towns, has found another way to maximize efficiency. The towns joined together to hire Attorney Nizetic to handle all their prosecutorial duties. The towns had to form a cooperative agency, like a school or sewer district, for the purposes of appointing and hiring a regional prosecutor to handle all their court cases. The arrangement is the first of its kind in the state and may well be a model for more communities. Nizetic has been on the job for a few years and said it’s working well by maximizing efficiencies. He arranges a dozen or so pre-trial conferences and gets done in a few hours what would have taken several days with many, many more people involved.
But what does all of this mean for the motorist on the side of the road with blue lights flashing and his or her heart beating rapidly? What should your strategy or excuse be as you await the officer’s slow walk to your vehicle? Consider that this is already a tense situation for the officer. Watch closely as he or she approaches and follows procedure by casually resting a hand on the back of your vehicle, leaving a full set of fingerprints as evidence if something goes seriously wrong (e.g. should the officer be assaulted and the driver flees). Although such stops are routine, they are among the most dangerous for officers. More than half of all law enforcement deaths grow out of a traffic stop. It’s best to defuse an already tense situation with politeness and respect. It helps to have your license and registration ready and to just answer the officer’s questions. If you have a good excuse, go ahead and share it.
Attorney Nizetic remembers a man with a bladder control condition who, upon being pulled over, excused himself to the woods to relieve himself and later provided medical documentation to the court and the ticket was dismissed. He advises against several worn-out excuses like “My vehicle won’t go that fast,” “Everyone else was speeding too” and “I don’t have any tickets on my record.” The latter two may help, but they’re obvious to the officer and work better if left unsaid.
If you get a ticket, then you must decide whether it make sense to fight the charge by pleading not guilty or to plead guilty (or nolo contendere, which in Latin means “you do not wish to contend”) and pay the fine. In most cases, unless you are going really fast, you can plea by mail and it’s done.
The fines range from $51.67 to $361.67, depending upon how many miles per hour over the speed limit. “It’s not economically feasible to go to court to challenge a $50 speeding ticket,” says Nizetic. “Why would you pay [an attorney] eight times the cost of the ticket?”
The only reason would be financial or ideological. For some, their annual insurance premiums can jump as much as $500 for one ticket. For those with a CDL, commercial driver’s license, the increase is even greater and may jeopardize their license.
Free Keene, the Libertarian-leaning group that regularly challenges authority, has taken up the cause of encouraging people to “not take the plea” and “back up the court proceedings” to shut the system down. They have videos and pamphlets that describe tactics that include delaying trials, challenging evidence and witnesses and bringing up procedural questions.
One of their most committed activists is Ian Freeman, of Keene, who has challenged several minor offenses without success. He did beat one speeding ticket; after one year of delays, he got his trial and then sat for three more hours in court waiting for the arresting police officer to appear. She didn’t and the charge was dismissed because it violated his right to confront his accuser. He was happy to win, but adds, “I paid in time.”