Most traffic tickets issued in California are printed with the words “NOTICE TO APPEAR” in the upper left hand corner on the front side of the ticket. This is the side on which the officer writes your name, address, license number, vehicle information, etc., as well as the infraction the officer is accusing you of.
If you agree with the officer that you are guilty of a crime or that you have violated another driver's rights, you will indeed have to appear in court. Or, you could do what 95% of ticketed drivers do, and pay the ticket without protest.
However, what can a Marinite do when he or she believes they have been falsely accused? What can you do when you want to plead "Not guilty"?
Most people believe you have only one option: Go to court and present your case in front of the judge. Although there are varying opinions about your chances, available accounts indicate you have about a 5% probability that your ticket will be dismissed in court. Of course, there is the apocryphal story about people who have gotten their citations thrown out when the officer didn't show up. However, this is more urban legend than actual occurrence; don't bank on it as your only defense.
Surprisingly, only a handful of drivers know there is a much easier way to contest an unwarranted traffic ticket. On the back of the ticket, toward the bottom, note 2.b. outlines the simplest way to “contest the violation” when you choose to plead “Not guilty.” This legal option is available to everyone ticketed for an infraction in California, unless specifically denied on the ticket by the officer.
Here is the wording from the state’s official form TR 200, “INSTRUCTIONS TO DEFENDANT (Trial by Written Declaration) (Vehicle Code, § 40902).” “Vehicle Code section 40902 allows a defendant to contest citations in writing, without having to make a personal court appearance. This procedure is called a ‘trial by declaration.’ Trials by written declaration are available in cases involving infraction violations of the Vehicle Code or of local ordinances adopted under the Vehicle Code.”
On the Marin County Superior Court web page regarding Traffic Court – Plead Not Guilty – Trial by Written Declaration, the following information for filing a Trial by Written Declaration is offered.
“Below are links to the required forms for requesting trials by written declarations:
Seems clear enough, doesn’t it?
However, this is where it gets a little tricky for residents of San Anselmo and Fairfax. Both cities’ websites have their own spin on how to plead “Not guilty” to a traffic citation.
According to San Anselmo's Police Department Policy Manual, "Any request from a recipient to dismiss a citation shall be referred to the Traffic Bureau Manager. Upon a review of the circumstances involving the issuance of the traffic citation, the Traffic Bureau Manager may request the Field Operations Captain to recommend dismissal of the traffic citation. If approved, the citation will be forwarded to the appropriate court with a request for dismissal."
And, here is Fairfax Police Department’s official answer to the question, "How can I contest a traffic citation?" "A person who receives a traffic citation may contest it by going to the court he/she is cited to (listed on the citation) and posting bail (paying the amount of the citation). After the person has posted bail, the court clerk will assign a court date. On the specified date, the person will be able to plead his/her case before a judge and question the officer. If the judge rules in the person's favor, the bail they posted will be refunded."
Neither city's website mentions the legal option of Trial by Written Declaration. In addition, neither clearly states that all tickets go directly to and are handled by Marin County's Superior Court http://www.marincourt.org/traffic.htm "The Court files citations received from all Marin County law enforcement agencies including local police departments, animal control, parks, open space, and fish and game agencies, as well as Marin County citations from the California Highway Patrol."
Although the Marin Superior Court’s webpage offers links to the documents necessary for filing Trial by Written Declaration there is this curious sentence, “Typically, individuals elect to request trials by written declaration when they do not live in Marin County.” In addition, on the county’s Traffic Court – General Information page, of the “five ways to take care of citations,” Trial by Written Declaration is relegated to fifth place with this note, “Individuals often choose this option if they live far away from the Court.”
Trial by Written Declaration may indeed be the preferred option for drivers who live outside of Marin County and who choose to plead “Not guilty.” However, Trial by Written Declaration is not an option reserved just for out-of-towners. This is an opportunity for any driver, living anywhere, to defend his or her innocence to the judge without losing a day going to court for arraignment and then another day to attend a court hearing. Where the court environment is familiar home turf for police officers, it is both alien and intimidating for most citizens. As such, few citizens have the ability to confidently and persuasively present the evidence of their innocence.
On the other hand, Trial by Written Declaration allows the driver to carefully and clearly represent the evidence to prove that the ticket is unwarranted. Also, the Trial by Written Declaration “Statement of Facts” is reviewed by the judge away from the distractions of a noisy courtroom. Under these circumstances, it is much more likely that, presented with a compelling argument, “dismissal” will be the most reasonable and rational decision for the judge to make.
Consider the long-term effects of even one traffic ticket – at least three years on your record; at least one point on your license; possibility of substantial insurance increases for 3-5 years; and hundreds of dollars in fines that you can’t afford to simply throw away. Then, the next time you are pulled over for a ticket you know you don’t deserve, consider requesting Trial by Written Declaration.