Your Day in Traffic Court
"I'll see you in court!" This hollow threat often ended conversations at the roadside after a driver was issued a traffic ticket for a violation. I knew that few of them would actually carry out their intention and if they did, there would probably be no coherent defence made.
Like many things in life, success often depends on preparation as much as it does on the delivery. Traffic court is one of those occasions.
At The Roadside
I wrote the Q&A: How to Deal With a Traffic Ticket to assist in the process starting with being pulled over and ending with the conclusion of the court case. Links at the bottom of the article refer you to other reliable sources of information appropriate for courts in British Columbia.
If you are really serious about defending yourself well, probably the best 30 minutes you can spend is by taking advantage of the Canadian Bar Association's Lawyer Referral Service. This will help you decide if you want to represent yourself or hire the lawyer to defend you. Should you decide to manage your own defence you will very likely receive valuable advice.
The officer is required to disclose information on the case against you if you request it. Disclosure is essentially a summary of the evidence that the officer intends to present to the court. Should you require specific information, ask for it. Do this well in advance of the trial and I would suggest that you do so in writing and either mail or deliver it to the officer's workplace.
This step is where people often take advice from the internet to make outlandish requests and become upset when it is refused. The case of R v Wong comes out of a B.C. traffic court and may be considered as a guide to reasonable requests that the presiding judicial justice will support.
Speaking of case law, there is a fairly extensive collection on the DriveSmartBC web site. Searching "case law" and the offence you are interested in may turn up relevant examples of how the courts view a particular situation.
You can also do your own research on the Canadian Legal Information Institute's web site.
If you feel that your Charter Rights have been violated, most commonly your right to a trial within a reasonable length of time, you cannot do this in traffic court. You must notify the court registry and arrange for a hearing in provincial court instead. The judicial justice does not have the authority to preside over these cases.
Visit Traffic Court
You can learn a lot through the experience of others. Contact your local court registry and find out when traffic court is being held. It may even be possible to find out if the officer that issued your ticket will testify. Sit in on a morning or afternoon session as a spectator. On the day of your trial, you will already know what to expect.
How to Prepare
Prepare ahead of time for your trial:
- request disclosure. write to the officer involved and ask for notes, pictures, or documents that the police will be relying on for evidence at trial. Allow lots of time for the notice to reach the police and return the answer to you.
- make notes ahead of time on the items that you wish to bring to the court's attention that will show you are not guilty of doing what was alleged.
- subpeona any witnesses that you require. You do this by attending at the court registry with the names and addresses of the people that you require.
- consider attending traffic court to observe before your trial date. This will allow you to become familiar with what will happen and allow you to be less nervous and more focussed on the big day.
- at the courthouse on trial day before the trial commences is a good time to play "let's make a deal" with the officer. Talk to them outside the courtroom and make your offer. Things like offering to plead guilty to speeding at $138 instead of $196 might be accepted. You have nothing to lose by asking. Can't find the officer and still want to try? When your case is called, ask the judge for a brief adjournment to speak with the officer.
- dress neatly, don't chew gum, turn off your pager/cell phone, take off your hat. In most cases the dispute will be heard in traffic court. The judicial justice of the peace is called "your worship" otherwise in provincial court it is "your honour". It's not too big a deal unless you are being discourteous. If you are first and don't know how to address the judge, ask, they will be impressed that you are earnest.
- if you are going to call witnesses, have them leave the courtroom before your trial starts. They can sit and watch until then, but if they sit there and listen to part of the trial, their evidence is tainted and cannot be given as much weight by the court.
- listen carefully to the evidence given by the officer. Take a pen and paper with you to make notes if you wish to.
- on cross examination ask questions that highlight any evidence given by the officer that is to your advantage and ask if anything needs to be clarified so that you understand and can respond to it.
- if you are going to give evidence know if you are going to affirm to tell the truth or if you want to swear on the bible. It's surprising how often this has to be explained as well.
- be careful about choosing to give evidence on your own behalf. If you do, you are open to cross examination from the officer and must answer. Gaps in the officer's testimony can be filled in this way. This is not the time to complain about police treatment. The court is only interested in the evidence. Complaints about police misconduct are for the public complaints commission, not the traffic court.
- both sides will be given a chance to summarize. The summary is your chance to highlight important parts of the evidence from both the officer and yourself (if you chose to testify) that show you are not guilty.
- the verdict will be given and the judge will explain the reasons. If you are found not guilty, that's it. The ticket goes in the garbage can and you are free to go. If guilty, the trial now moves on to the penalty phase. The officer may choose to show the court your driving record (if you have one) and suggest that the penalty not be lowered if this is an offence without a minimum or a statutory amount. You have the chance to explain why the penalty should be different for your circumstances or failing that you can give evidence about your financial circumstances and ask for a reasonable length of time to pay. If the justice asks how long you need, be prepared with an answer. Don't just shrug your shoulders and leave it up to them.
- if you think the guilty verdict is improper, it isn't necessary to say so. Stop by the court registry on your way out and ask about an appeal. You will likely be wise to seek advice from a lawyer before proceeding. Appeals take place in Supreme Court and it is very formal with all the i's dotted and t's crossed before you get there.
- Provincial Court - Traffic Court Guide
- The Canadian Bar Association - Lawyer Referral Service
- UBC Law Students Legal Advice Program - Motor Vehicle Law
- The Univesity of Victoria Law Center- Defending Traffic Tickets
- Law Society of BC - Representing Yourself in a Criminal Trial