Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Fighting a traffic ticket is your right

Be prepared when you get to court

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MOST of us have had a speeding ticket at one time or another. And usually, you just accept it, pay the fine, and carry on. Getting dinged for driving too fast just comes with the territory, right?

Unless you get one that you think is undeserved, in which case you've got a real scrap on your hands, should you decide to dispute it, as I did earlier this year. I'll admit it up front I lost but it was close and could have gone either way. And I did get the fine reduced. Here are a few things I learned along the way.

First up, when you're actually stopped, keep your conversation with the officer to a minimum. Don't rant and rave, and especially, DO NOT admit anything. If you agree with him that you were speeding, you've already admitted your guilt.

Secondly, file a notice of dispute, but don't do it immediately. The longer you leave it, the further away your court date will be. Once you've filed your dispute, you should get a letter advising you of your hearing date. You can change this, but "not very many times," according to the Winnipeg Magistrate's office, but probably at least twice. And it must be within a reasonable time of the court date -- 14 days, max. The first change can usually be done no problem -- usually by mail, although you might have to go down to the courthouse and talk to a court clerk. The second change of date will be tougher, requiring you to appear before a magistrate to explain why. I actually got a third postponement, because the magistrate found a flaw in the original ticket.

Why do all this? Because the courts get hundreds of disputes and violations coming across their desks every day. The longer yours is put on hold, the greater the chances the officer will have lost his evidence or have been transferred or simply can't show up. If there are witnesses for the Crown, they get harder to round up as time goes by as well. And if there are budgetary considerations within the attorney-general's department, they may limit the officer's court time to one or two appearances, depending upon the severity of the allegation. Unfortunately, the Barney Fife impersonator that pulled me over seemed to be waging a one-man war against automobiles and was there every single time -- large as life and twice as ugly. That's generally the case these days: cops get paid overtime to go to court and nine times out of 10, they'll be there.

Once you've got your final court date, inundate the officer and Crown counsel with requests for disclosure -- more evidence. They must comply, and it's your right to ask for it. Ask for copies of both sides of the ticket, and the officer's field notes. These are important, because they demonstrate the officer's competence. If a radar gun was involved, ask for calibration test results (radar guns must be checked before and after they are used) and tuning fork tests, age of the gun, make and model and so on. For more information, visit these Web sites: Keep notes of all correspondence between yourself and the police officer.

When you finally do get to court, be prepared. Take along any relevant diagrams, charts, or other evidence. You will have the opportunity to cross-examine the officer, and to quote a bit of basic courtroom wisdom, never ask a question you don't already have the answer for. Attack his credibility, ask about road and weather conditions at the time, his technical grasp of the radar gun, where he was positioned, on what basis he decided you were speeding and so on. Explain to the judge up front that you are a layman and not familiar with court protocol, and ask for his/her patience if you slip up. Chances are you'll get quite a bit of latitude.

Be respectful and patient. In your heart, you may feel that the officer is a bottom-feeding twerp who isn't fit to guide school children across a crosswalk, but keep it to yourself. And don't go off on a tangent or rail against the injustices of the legal system. This is not your chance to vent. The judge/magistrate will have heard every excuse in the book and what he/she wants are hard cold facts, not a bunch of angry rhetoric. Take your time. Breathe. For tips on defending yourself, try this Web site:

Last but not least, try to get the help of a professional. In my case, I managed to get in touch with an ex-police officer, who had, during his career, issued hundreds of speeding tickets. His help was invaluable.

Remember, fighting a traffic ticket is your right, not a privilege. Good luck.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 27, 2003 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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