Criminal Law

Fighting a Speeding Violation Ticket

By John McCurley, Attorney
Basics of speed limit laws and fighting a speeding ticket in traffic court.

All motorists dread being pulled over for speeding. Speedy tickets, assuming you’re convicted, are expensive, and accumulating too many tickets can lead to points on your driving record and ultimately license suspension. But most drivers will at some point have to deal with a speeding citation.

If you do get caught speeding, you’ll first need to decide whether to just pay the fine and move on or fight the ticket in court. (Some drivers also have the option of traffic school, which might or might not involve paying the fine.) And if you opt to fight your citation, you’ll have to choose between representing yourself and hiring a traffic attorney.

To inform your decisions, here is some basic information about excessive speed laws and fighting a speeding ticket.

Types of Speed Limits

Many drivers don’t realize there are different types of speed limits. The available defenses depend on which type of speeding offense you’re accused of committing. Generally, excessive-speed laws fall into one of three categories:

  • “absolute”
  • “presumed,” “presumptive,” or “prima facie,” and
  • “basic.”

Absolute limit offenses. Absolute speed limits are the most straightforward: If you exceed the posted limit, you’ve violated the law. Because there’s no wiggle room with absolute limits, the probability of avoiding a conviction are often less than they are with other types of speeding offenses.

Presumed limit offenses. When the police catch you breaking a presumed speed limit (also called a “presumptive” or “prima facie” limit), it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re guilty of a speeding offense. If you can show that—despite going faster than the presumptive or prima facie limit—you were driving a safe speed, you can beat the charge and avoid the conviction.

Basic limits offenses. Basic speed laws are like presumed limits in reverse: Even if you weren’t exceeding the posted speed limit, you can be ticketed and convicted if the speed you were driving was unsafe under the circumstances.

Preparing for Trial

Trial preparation can often mean the difference between winning and losing. Depending on the circumstances, you might want to bring photos, videos, maps, diagrams, and witnesses to court. For instance, if you’re arguing that you were driving a safe speed, it’s a good idea to bring evidence showing what the conditions were like when you got the ticket—things like traffic and weather reports.

Generally, you also have access to some of the evidence in the government’s possession. The process for requesting and getting this evidence is called “discovery.” Discovery for a speeding ticket case might include things like officer notes and maintenance documents for radar and other speed-measuring equipment.

Burden of Proof: Who Has to Prove What?

At trial, the government has the burden of proving with admissible evidence that you committed the speeding offense. Otherwise, the judge or jury is supposed to find you not guilty. Standards of proof vary, but most states require the government to prove speeding violations by a “preponderance of the evidence”—enough evidence to show more likely than not that you were speeding.

However, with a presumptive speed limit, it’s a little different. The government initially must prove that the driver exceeded the presumed limit. But if the government can do that, the burden then shifts to the motorist to show the speed was safe under the circumstances. Should the driver succeed at doing so, the judge or jury is supposed to acquit.

Speeding Ticket Defenses

The speeding ticket defenses that are available and the likelihood that a defense will succeed depend on lots of variables. For instance, arguing that you were driving a safe speed won’t help if you’re accused of breaking an absolute speed limit. But the same argument might be successful for a presumptive limit offense. And an argument that convinces one judge to rule in your favor might not work on a different judge.

Attorneys who regularly handle traffic cases are typically in the best position to know what works and what doesn’t for a given set of circumstances.

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