How I Beat Traffic Court

Harry here.  I’ve been fortunate to go a few years without any moving violations, but a lot of drivers aren’t always so lucky.  Today, RSG contributor Jonathan Knope recalls a recent run-in with a school bus camera where he was actually able to get out of the ticket.  Here’s how he did it, and also what options you have for fighting a ticket.

A few months ago, I got a letter in the mail informing me that I was being fined $300 for allegedly passing a stopped school bus. The incident took place at a four-way stop in a residential area about a block away from my house.

I was in the intersection turning left past the bus, which unbeknownst to me, was about to unload passengers. As I rounded the corner at a whopping 10 mph or so, I happened to catch the stop sign arm unfolding, and I stopped my car – but not before triggering the bus’s automatic stop arm camera.

Copy of my Civil Notice of Violation which I received for allegedly passing a stopped school bus

These tickets shouldn’t be a thing.

After doing some research, I learned that these tickets are not uncommon. In fact, bus cameras reportedly capture over 1,000 violations per day. What’s even more surprising is where all that fine money goes. You’ll note that the letter itself is a “civil warning,” not a citation. That’s because school bus cameras aren’t installed by the government. The cameras (and the notices) come from private companies who, in turn, keep the bulk of the profit – up to 75% in some cases.

In Virginia, lawmakers actually pulled the plug on their contracts with the stop-arm camera companies after drivers challenged the legality of the “citation-by-mail” process. Defendants were able to use parts of state law which grant authority to issue fines to show that the practice was actually illegal. Specifically, only judges and uniformed police officers are allowed to write tickets, not sensors and cameras.

Here in Georgia, I soon learned that the same defense would not be viable for me, as unfortunately my state’s lawmakers opted to cover themselves with this handy catch-all: “All laws or parts of laws in conflict with this Act are hereby repealed.”

👉Related article: Essential gear every rideshare driver should have

But they’re a thing.

I decided to go to court anyway and plead my case with the judge. In some ways, this was a risky move, and one you should consider carefully if you receive this type of ticket. By paying your fine to the camera company, you’ll typically avoid any points on your license, and any reports to your insurance company.

In the case of passing a school bus, you’ll also avoid a misdemeanor charge and up to 12 months in jail. By going to court, on the other hand, you risk being convicted – held fully legally responsible – for what is in fact a very serious crime. That includes all those things you would have avoided – points on your license, higher insurance premiums, and in very rare cases, jail time.

Nonetheless, I decided to play it risky and see if I could get it dismissed. After all, I did stop my car – the spirit of the law was followed, if not the letter – and to be quite frank, I did not have $300 to spare. I hoped I would get a compassionate judge.
Photo from the school bus stop arm camera

To court I went.

There’s no photos of this part because I was a nervous wreck, and my hands were shaking far too much to hold a camera steady. The summons said to arrive at 8AM, and to my great relief, I was out of court by 8:45, once again a free man.

The gentleman who reviewed my case was not a judge, just a guy with an ID badge at a desk, and the hearing itself lasted all of five minutes. My first tactic was to explain that I never saw the warning lights flash on the bus before it started unloading. This was not at all effective – the guy insisted that the lights were flashing. My second tactic was to point out that I did, after all, stop for the bus. Although I couldn’t be seen coming to a full stop on the video recording, it was obvious that I was in the process of coming to a stop after the sign flipped out. The video showed me slowing down to almost a stop – not speeding past.

This was enough to convince the guy that their case against me would be tough to uphold. After reviewing the video with his colleague, he told me that my case was dismissed and I was free to go. Those may have been the sweetest words I have heard in my whole life; I high-tailed it out of that courtroom faster than you can say “privatized government functions.”

One of the best pieces of mail I have ever received - a notice that my school bus ticket was dismissed.

What should you do?

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, this is not legal advice.
First off, if at all possible, avoid telling anyone you’re a rideshare or delivery driver if you don’t have commercial insurance. This could complicate the proceedings and net you extra fines and penalties. If you can leave it unsaid without committing perjury, DO.

Next, research your local laws. My case goes to show that if there’s video evidence on your side, you could get the ticket dismissed. (One of the best ways to have evidence handy is to install your own dashcam.) However, a lot depends on your exact circumstances. Maybe your ticket was issued by a real officer; maybe the camera that caught you only shoots still pictures, not video. Whatever the case, you should thoroughly research the traffic laws and legal procedures that factor into your particular ticket to determine whether you have a shot at a dismissal or a reduced fine.

Finally, decide if you want to dispute or pay up. If they caught you red-handed, it may be best to just pay and do the traffic school – unless you’ve got a really good excuse that you can back up with documentation at your hearing (for instance, if you had a loved one dying in hospital, or you were fleeing from a serial killer). From my research on school bus tickets in particular, “I didn’t see the sign” is not a successful line of reasoning – you’ll need a good explanation to get you off the hook. Otherwise, you may be risking a bigger fine or extra penalties if your case goes to trial.

If you think you have a good shot at dismissal, look into your options. In my case, I felt that having in fact stopped for the sign – even if I took a few seconds to slow down – constituted a pretty good defense, and I was confident in my ability to explain that to a judge. Besides, getting the advice of a lawyer would have cost more than the fine. If you’re really worried about your insurance premiums or points on your license, however, there may be other options.

Ticket defense companies

If you live in CA or another state where tickets are particularly expensive, you may find that you’ve got access to local firms that offer to help you get your ticket dismissed, usually for around $100. Research these companies carefully, and remember that they are not lawyers. They don’t accompany you to court; instead, they provide legal documents for you to dispute your ticket in writing, rather than showing up for a court date.

In many cases, you’re fully capable of filing this paperwork yourself. The ticket defense firm just ensures that everything is filed correctly, and they will use the full extent of their expertise to help you prepare the best written defense possible.

So when should you use a ticket defense firm? If you already have a lot of points on your license, it may be worthwhile to utilize these services to ensure you’ve got the best shot at staying in the clear. If your driving record gets too ugly, you could end up getting deactivated, like this driver over on r/UberDrivers. As Steve Miller of writes, “it’s not just the cost of our service. If the point goes on the record, it can cost you several thousand dollars in increased insurance over 3 years. It is always better to fight a traffic ticket than just pay it.”

FYI – RSG readers can get $10 off an annual membership with Get Dismissed by using the code ‘RSG10‘.  Click here to sign up!

👉Related article: Essential gear every rideshare driver should have

Can Uber/Lyft help me?

Short answer: No. In some markets, they have been known to pay drivers’ fines when they are cited for operating “illegal taxis.” This has occurred at the Atlanta airport several times when our police department decided to “crack down” on Uber drivers by having undercover cops request rides. If you end up with a standard traffic violation though, unfortunately you’re on your own.

What’s the worst ticket you’ve ever gotten? Have your passengers ever caused you to get pulled over? Share your stories below!

– Jon @RSG