Is it worth it to fight my ticket?

I get several calls and emails every day from people wondering whether it’s “cost effective” or “worth it” to fight their traffic tickets and/or to hire a lawyer to do it for them.  In the case of hiring me as their lawyer, people often ask for some kind of promise beforehand –  some stamp or seal or guarantee that if they hire me, they will in fact pay less after lawyer fees than they would otherwise pay if they just paid the ticket.

I understand this desire for certainty, and I understand the desire to save money VERY well, but the fact is that the “cost effective” analysis is very amorphous.  In law, a lot of answers are very amorphous (which is why lawyers are often not trusted – how do I know my lawyer is telling me the truth?).  So whenever my answer is “it depends,” I’m always prepared to explain why it is not so clear cut.

Time.  For one thing, it depends on how you measure “cost.”  To some people (busy people), time itself is extremely valuable.  If you have a job, are a full-time student, or lead an otherwise eventful life, spending the money to fight a ticket may be well worth it.   For those facing criminal convictions there is often no priceI’ve blogged before about how much time you could spend simply waiting in lines to fight your traffic ticket.  You also have to consider the driving time it takes to get to the courthouse (many people who get tickets in southern California are commuters or non-residents just passing through, so they aren’t getting tickets in jurisdictions down the street from where they live).  Remember that the average ticket usually has at least 3 appearances in court: 1) your notice to appear date; 2) your arraignment date; and 3) your trial date.  This means you’ll spend time driving to court, waiting in court, and dealing with the court at least 3 times per ticket.  That’s A LOT of time.  So if time is valuable to you, maybe $500 is, for you, “cost effective.”  But time is just one of several factors to consider.

Points on your DMV record.  Another cost to take into account, in cases where your ticket is a “moving violation,” is the point or points received on your DMV record.  Common moving violations are: speeding, crossing over a double yellow line, and running a stop sign (or “rolling through” a stop sign, as the case may be).  Although it is up to your car insurance company and their underwriting criteria whether or not to raise your insurance premium rates, I’ve had clients who have had their rates doubled after receiving just one point on their DMV record.

Stress, anxiety, and impatience, are other costs people experience when dealing with the courts.  Different people value being free of these uncomfortable emotions to a different extent.  Some people aren’t daunted by the court or by judges; others are very nervous.  What’s it worth to you?

The ticket charge itself and/or a failure to appear charge.  If you fight your ticket and the officer fails to show at trial, your ticket will be dismissed.  You don’t have the chance of getting a ticket dismissed in this way if you never fight it though.  People often have trouble deciding whether to take this chance or not.  The statistics on how often the cop shows up won’t help you in making a decision to fight it: you have about a 50% chance of  getting your ticket dismissed if the officer doesn’t show up. Even if the officer is a no show and you get your ticket dismissed, not all judges dismiss a failure to appear charge (if you have one) along with the dismissal of the underlying charge.  Some judges will dismiss the failure to appear along with the underlying charge, but some judges will make you pay for the failure to appear even if the officer didn’t show up because the judge considers the failure to appear “separate” from the traffic violation itself.

The value of not having a misdemeanor on your record.  If your ticket is in collections because you failed to appear, then you will be convicted of a misdemeanor if you just pay collections the amount they are asking for.  If you fight your ticket (with or without a lawyer), chances are VERY high that you will get your your misdemeanor reduced to  an infraction.  What is the value to you of having a clean criminal record?  Whether you are or will be applying for a job might be a factor, since you often have to answer “yes” or “no” to whether you’ve ever been convicted of a misdemeanor or a felony on job applications and in interviews.  Granted, missing your traffic date doesn’t look as bad to a potential employer as a drug possession or petty theft misdemeanor might, but it may communicate irresponsibility on your part, unless you had a valid reason for failing to appear.

As you can see, the question “is it cost effective?” is answered differently depending on your personality, your personal schedule, your tolerance for dealing with the courts, and several other factors.  I hope this post has helped you analyze the various factors that affect your unique situation, and perhaps it’ll help you determine FOR YOURSELF whether or not you should hire a lawyer.