NMA Email Newsletter: Issue #51

The Facts & The Law

Defendants representing themselves (Pro-se) in a traffic law matter are sometimes confused by the distinction between the “facts” and the “law” related to their case.

In a standard trial, either before a jury or a “bench” trial before a single judge, the dispute usually centers on the facts of the case. For example, the arresting officer claims the defendant was traveling at 70 miles per hour and the defendant argues that he was going 50 miles per hour. The fact in dispute is how fast was the defendant traveling. However, if the defendant does not dispute the officer’s estimate of his speed, but rather argues that the posted speed limit of 60 miles per hour was not legally established he is not arguing the facts of the case, but rather the law.

Once a judge or jury have ruled on a case it is considered that any debate on the facts of case is over and the results stand. If the defendant is found guilty and he wishes to challenge that decision he can appeal to a higher court. However, that appeal must be based on matters of law, not the facts that were in dispute at the original trial. The theory here is that the judge or jury who participated in the trial are in a better position to weigh the facts of the case than would be a second hand opinion made by an appellate court.

In the earlier example, where the defendant did not dispute the facts and agreed that the officer correctly estimated his speed, the judge may not have agreed with the defendant’s claim that the speed limit was illegally posted. (Note: juries are usually instructed to only consider the facts of the case and not the underlying law. A vexing issue for the courts is when a jury or juror take issue with a law and refuse to find a defendant guilty, even though the facts indicate guilt. This is called jury nullification.) The defendant could then base his appeal on challenging the original judge’s interpretation of the speed limit law.

An exception to the situation just described is when the original trial is an informal hearing and not a “trial of record,” meaning there would be no record of the trial and thereby nothing for a higher court to review and rule upon. In this case an appeal would be made to a court of record where the whole case would be re-tried from scratch and the first trial would have no bearing on the final decision.

Another deviation from this normal pattern of trial and appeal is when new and compelling information is discovered that significantly changes one or more of the previously accepted facts (for example DNA tests prove the convicted defendant could not have done what he was arrested and convicted of). In this situation there would not be an appeal, but either a dismissal of charges or, at minimum, an order for a new trial where again the facts could be debated.

On a unrelated, but interesting note:
Check out the new design of our Speed Trap Exchange website which lists over 55,000 speed traps across the USA and Canada. Please help out the NMA and your fellow drivers by posting the speed traps in your area. Forward the site to your friends and get their input too!

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