Caught on Camera
Fighting a traffic fine in court starts the moment you’re pulled over by the police (if in fact you get pulled over – these days unexpected penalty notices often arrive by post). At the roadside, whatever you say can have a significant bearing on what happens in court. It’s stressful, and you’re likely to feel out of your depth. But you need to get your ‘game face’ on because…
In many states anyone stopped by the highway patrol will be videotaped and the conversation will be recorded. Everything will be recorded and – potentially – subject later to scrutiny in court.
Sgt Bill Lewis (not his real name) has been a Highway Patrol officer with the Victorian Police for 12 years. He says many drivers torpedo themselves in the legal sense virtually as soon as they speak. “During a roadside interview we might ask: ‘How fast do you think you were going?’ If you say you don’t know, well, it’s pretty hard to tell the court later how fast you were going, isn’t it? I mean, you’ve already admitted you didn’t know. If you say it was a lower speed than we allege, but still a speed over the limit, okay, you just admitted to speeding. It’s hard to take that back.”
Traffic specialist solicitor Mark Stenberg from Lawstop in Sydney says the trick lies in passing “the attitude test” – you need to demonstrate appropriate respect while being assertive enough to protect your interests. “In that situation above,” he says, “your best bet is probably to say that you know how fast you were going, but you choose to reserve your defence.”
Both Stenberg and Lewis agree there’s no obligation to incriminate yourself. “You really shouldn’t make any admissions,” says Stenberg. “However, if a police officer alleges you’ve committed any offence, you should assertively but diplomatically disagree.”
(Obviously this is easier to do if you’re caught at an alleged 75km/h in a 60km/h zone than if it’s alleged you were drunk and doing 140 in an unregistered vehicle, with a bag of cocaine in your lap. Diplomatic denial has its limits.)
If you decide to fight – even by representing yourself in court – get professional help. An hour of a solicitor’s time will cover a multitude of uncertainty. You’ll discover if your case has any potential upside, strategies you might use, how to cross-examine the police officer, calibrating your speedo using your GPS, and the rules of the game generally.
To Fight, or…
Mark Stenberg says it’s often easier to contest in court the first fine you get – especially if you have a clean driving record. “Your past good behaviour is certainly worth something in court,” he says. “Unfortunately many people leave matters until their licence is hanging by a thread. It’s harder to leverage a clean record then, because you no longer have one.”
If you have a long-term clean record and the offence you’re alleged to have committed is comparatively minor, you can often have the matter dismissed simply by writing the right letter, which a solicitor can help you draft at minimal cost.
Section 10 is little-known part of the Crimes (Sentencing Procedure) Act 1999, which you should discuss with your solicitor. Basically, without proceeding to a conviction, section 10 allows a court to find you guilty – and here’s the important part – without penalty. It’s the next-best thing after having the case thrown out but, unfortunately, because the offence is proved the demerit points associated with it often still stand.
If you’re planning on fighting, plan on paying. Mark Stenberg says you should ask yourself how much your licence is worth. “I defended a professional driver recently, looking down the barrel of six months’ disqualification, and he kept his licence. That cost him some money … but not as much as the cost of being unemployed for six months, which we estimated at $29,000.” If you’re working in an office and you live on a train line, the economics are, obviously, different.”
Going it Alone
Representing yourself in court is one option. Solicitors rarely advise it, of course, and Sgt Bill Lewis says court is often a ‘fish out of water’ experience for first-time defendants. “It’s easy to lose if you don’t know the rules,” he advises. Mark Stenberg says one day in the public gallery of a local court is invaluable reconnaissance. “You’ll also learn whether you have the temperament to go it alone in a fairly adversarial environment.”