Contesting, Mitigating, and Appealing Traffic Infractions From the Seattle Speeding Ticket to the Sunnyside Improper Lane Change Ticket
Many drivers call me after they have been stopped by the police in the State of Washington and after the police have issued traffic tickets. Every traffic ticket, which usually contains one or more listed infractions, often cause feelings of stress, fear, annoyance, and humiliation for most people. Traffic infractions also can have many serious, collateral consequences. For the drug rep or truck driver, a speeding ticket can mean higher insurance rates for an employer and individual. It can also mean the loss of a job for the employee. For the 16 or 17-year-old driver, a couple infractions can mean a license suspension, not to mention enormous insurance premium increases. These examples are just a couple highlights and are not meant to be an unlimited list of consequences. But the rights drivers have are mostly fairly standard around the state, if not entirely understood by the general population. In this post I want to go over a few of the rights drivers, passengers, bicyclists, and pedestrians have in dealing with a traffic infraction. All groups above have the same rights, although the collateral consequences for an operator of a motor vehicle are often different than a pedestrian or member of another class. These rights are not meant to be an exhaustive list and any individual cited for a moving violation should consult an attorney experienced in handling traffic infraction cases. You go to a doctor when you get ill and you might see a plumber to fix a plumbing issue. Hiring a lawyer for a traffic ticket will often put you ahead of the pack and can be of great economic value.
Remember that Washington State traffic infractions are noncriminal violations of law defined by statute and punishable by a fine. What follows are some observations about the differences between contesting, mitigating, and appealing. Hopefully readers of this blog will find some useful information.
- Contesting an infraction: Every driver can contest a traffic infraction. The driver should read the ticket, front and back if the ticket is green, and the front if the ticket is white. White tickets are usually "e-tickets," or electronic, and special care should be given to these notices because sometimes these "tickets" are not really infractions, but rather a notice, or summons, requiring a person to appear in court. If that's the case, do not pass go, as you are not in infraction land anymore, and the case is a criminal offense and there are different rights and responsibilities for the individual. But for a traffic infraction, every individual can contest (challenge) the ticket, and this is the only choice available on the ticket if an individual doesn't want a chance at an insurance company or employer seeing the ticket for several years (3 years for insurance companies, 5 years for employers in Washington on a final judgment that an individual committed an infraction). A person must respond to the ticket within 15 days of the date the ticket was issued, or, if mailed, typically 18 days from the date the ticket was mailed to the defendant.
- Mitigating an Infraction: Most of the time a defendant doesn't need an attorney to mitigate an infraction. Here, drivers are asking for a reduction in fine. It is typically the second-worst choice (behind paying the infraction), because the driver is admitting commission of the offense without even looking at any of the evidence, and although some drivers qualify for reductions in fines, not all drivers do. For example, sometimes judges are not allowed to reduce the fine. This is true for school and construction zone tickets, to cite a couple of different infractions in which the Legislature has taken away judicial discretion in reducing fines. Of course, a driver can still challenge (contest) the infraction if the driver requests a contested hearing instead of mitigation. Another reason to not mitigate an infraction is that mitigating an infraction is the same as paying the infraction as far as showing up on your insurance goes. Same for affecting a driver's record for a moving violation. Occasionally, judges will reduce speed as well as the underlying fine, but this really doesn't help the driver very much. Speeding, for example, is a still a moving violation. Moving violations greatly affect drivers' insurance premiums and can affect the driving privilege (these consequences do not apply, however, for camera tickets in the State of Washington).
- Appealing a Judicial Determination that an Infraction is Committed: Many people confuse "contesting" from "appealing." When a person contests an infraction, the individual is contesting the officer's determination that the individual committed the infraction. Remember that this is a law enforcement officer's determination - it is not the final word on the ticket if a person contests the ticket. The final word in a lower court is a final judgment by a judicial officer (a magistrate, commissioner, or judge). Requesting a contested hearing must be done within the first 15 days after receiving the notice of infraction, or 18 days from the time the infraction is mailed. With a request to contest, the person gets what most people would consider their "day in court" to challenge the infraction, or a time for an attorney to represent the person accused of the infraction in the first instance. But what if a judge finds that you did it, that you committed the infraction? Is there any recourse? The answer is yes, all defendants have an appeal as of right, that is one chance as of right to go to a higher court to have the adverse decision reviewed. However, very few judgments on infractions are appealed in the State of Washington. This is partly due to the expense of appealing, which is usually more expensive than contesting an infraction. This appeal as of right category is reserved for extraordinary infraction cases, and in Washington approximately less than 1 in 10,000 infraction cases get appealed every year. There are probably many more bad decisions that should be appealed from lower courts, but most people just want their contested hearing, and usually that is enough. It is extremely helpful to hire an attorney to contest a hearing (see above) because hopefully, with the use of an attorney, the individual will have no need for an appeal and will be able to obtain the benefits of wining at a contested hearing. If, however, there is a need for an appeal, an experienced attorney will identify and preserve the important issues in a case for review by a higher court, should an individual wish to appeal the case.
These rules apply for all infractions in the State of Washington, whether a person gets a ticket in Seattle or Sunnyside, Colfax or Kirkland. These rules apply to various type of offenses, from speeding tickets to failing to yield the right of way and failing to signal. Note that federal traffic offenses, such as speeding in a national park or on a military base, go to federal court and are treated very differently than state-level traffic infractions. To see how these rules apply in a specific case, it is critical that a cited individual contact an attorney at the earliest possible time.