Editor’s Note: This is an updated revision of the NMA weekly E-Newsletter #18 from May 2009. The information is still pertinent and useful!
It has long been the position of the NMA that most people, with a little preparation, can represent themselves in a routine traffic ticket situation. They can negotiate with the prosecutor or go to court, if necessary. However, there are situations where this is just not feasible. The ticket was issued in a jurisdiction a long distance from the defendant’s home. The charge is quite serious, with major consequences. Or, the individual is just not able to handle the stress of an adversarial confrontation with courthouse authorities. Sometimes, hiring a traffic ticket attorney is the best or only option.
Like almost every other aspect of our society, the law profession is made of specialists. An attorney specializing in one field of law might well know next to nothing about many other legal specialties. This pattern holds true for attorneys who specialize in traffic law. Real-estate lawyers, estate planners, or patent attorneys are not likely to have a working knowledge of traffic law. Even within traffic law, there are specialties, for example, DUI experts. The point to take away from this is that you need to choose an attorney who is very knowledgeable in the branch of law where you need the help.
For reasons of cost and “inside knowledge,” it is usually best to hire an attorney that regularly works in the jurisdiction where you received your ticket. Their expenses will be less than an out-of-town lawyer, and they will know nuances of the local courthouse system, including the judges and prosecutors. It’s important to understand that personal relationships between your attorney and courthouse personnel will largely dictate the outcome of your case. It is extremely rare for an attorney to engage in a full-blown trial to challenge a traffic ticket. Most traffic tickets are dealt with through negotiation between the defendant’s attorney and a district attorney’s office representative.
An exception to hiring a local insider is when you intend to spend a lot of money and actually take your case to court. An attorney who makes the DA’s office work to prosecute a case, refuses to “make a deal” and consumes a large dose of courthouse time is not going to be Mr. or Ms. “popular.” The “insiders,” right from the lowest court clerk to the District Attorney, and everyone in-between, can make life hell on wheels for the attorney who bucks the system and contests minor violations. Consequently, it is better to hire someone from out of town who won’t have to endure the local courthouse community’s wrath and revenge.
Depending on location, an attorney will plea-bargain a routine ticket for somewhere between $200 and $1000. You can expect a bill of $2000 and up for an attorney to represent you in a traffic ticket trial. (This discussion does not apply to more serious situations like DUI.)
We always recommend that you talk to at least three attorneys and choose the one that you feel most comfortable with to move forward. Your gut reaction is probably your best guide.
The most common cause of friction between client and attorney is the lack of clarity regarding exactly what the client wants to accomplish and what the attorney plans to do.
As noted above, attorneys almost always plea bargain a case and rarely do they go to trial. Often, a defendant assumes there will be a trial, and they “just know” they will prevail when the judge hears their riveting explanation of the events surrounding the traffic stop. Then they learn a deal’s been done, the points disappeared, but the fine went up. They are not happy and believe the lawyer didn’t do his job. Contrastingly, the lawyer feels like he (or she) accomplished what they set out to accomplish (get rid of the points) and thinks the client is an ungrateful jerk—the end of a wonderful relationship.
In summary, shop for an attorney that specializes in traffic tickets. For a plea bargain to get rid of the points or lower the fine, a local attorney is the most economical choice.
Talk to more than one attorney, choose the one that you feel the most comfortable with, and who hopefully will have your best interests in mind. Ensure you and the attorney are on the same page as far as your expectations are concerned and what the costs are likely to be. And, if you intend to “burn the courthouse” with a blistering legal attack, hire a great attorney who doesn’t have to practice in that courthouse on a regular basis—and plan to spend a lot of money!
If you do not know where to start looking for an attorney, check out the NMA Attorney Page on our website. If you want to know more about traffic law in the state where you received a ticket, check out the NMA State Pages. Here you can also find an attorney list for that state.