I take no responsibility for anything anyone does using the information and/or opinions contained herein. Use any information and/or opinions at your own risk. I do not guarantee the accuracy of the assertions, information, or opinions expressed herein. Due diligence is YOUR responsibility. As far as you’re concerned, everything contained in this guide might actually be fictional. ONE LAST TIME – USE AT YOUR OWN RISK!
Furthermore, the information that I present here is applicable ONLY TO WASHINGTON STATE. Some may be useful in other states, but I make so such representation.
Table of Contents:
Introduction and definitions
Receiving a ticket
Contesting the ticket
Part I – Introduction
I have put together this guide to procedures for traffic infractions in the State of Washington. Please understand that I am NOT an attorney, and any “advice” I give in this guide is merely my opinion, or “what I would do in a similar circumstance.” I may be totally wrong. Just remember, you get what you pay for, and this guide is no exception. If you really want my advice, here it is: GET A LAWYER!
That said, you also need to understand that this is NOT a “beat your ticket” guide. I am merely trying to explain the options and procedures, as well as some of the vocabulary associated with traffic infractions in WA. My goal is to provide you with the information you need to make informed decisions.
Washington State is unique in the country for its handling of traffic citations. You can find one or more of these properties in other states, but, to my knowledge WA is the only state where ALL of these apply:
• Most traffic infractions are “civil” in nature, not criminal. There are exceptions, of course. These include DUI, reckless driving and a host of others. You can find the exceptions listed in RCW 46.63.020
. This means that for those violations that are considered “infractions”, the state will NOT provide you with an attorney, nor are you accorded MOST of the rights accorded those accused of criminal offenses. On the other hand, this means you will not have a “criminal” record as a result of a traffic infraction (as you can in some states).
• The standard of proof is “preponderance of evidence” (see RCW 46.63.090 (3)
). Many states use “beyond a reasonable doubt”, which is a much more difficult standard to meet (although, in practice, I’m pretty sure just as many people are found “guilty” in CA, say, as in WA). “Preponderance of evidence” simply means that it’s “more likely than not” that you committed the offense. That doesn’t even mean 51%. It means 50% plus just enough to tip the scale against you. So, if it’s just your word against the citing officer, guess which way the scale tips.
• The officer who issued you the citation is NOT required to be present at the hearing. That’s not to say they won’t show up. But, the only way to ASSURE the officer’s presence is to subpoena him/her. IRLJ 3.3 (c)
Quoting IRLJ 3.3
• There may or may not be a prosecutor at the hearing. It’s up to each individual jurisdiction. For example, Tacoma Municipal Court does not usually have a prosecuting attorney at the hearings.
• There are no “points” for traffic infractions that the Washington Department of Licensing (DOL) assigns. That is not to say that some insurance companies don’t have a “point” system.
• Law – I will use the word “law” when I refer to a statute (contained in the Revised Code of Washington [RCW] and written by the state legislature) or local ordinance (written by the county or city governing body).
• Rule – This refers to a procedural directive written by the Supreme Court. For this guide, those will mostly consist of the Rules of Evidence
(ER), Infraction Rules for Courts of Limited Jurisdiction
(IRLJ), or Rules for Appeal of Decisions of Courts of Limited Jurisdiction
• Case Law – Refers to a Court of Appeals or Supreme Court published opinion.
• Discovery – A request for information about the evidence against you.
• Subpoena – A request for the appearance of a witness. Usually this will be the officer or possibly a radar technician.
Part II – OK, you’ve just received a ticket – now what?
As RCW 46.63.060 states:
Quoting RCW 46.63.060
Once you have received a Notice of Infraction, you have three choices, as outlined on the back of the citation and specified in RCW 46.63.070, paragraphs (2), (3), and (4). In short, you may:
• Pay the ticket (basically, plead “guilty”).Of these three choices, I highly recommend “NOT GUILTY”. Here’s why – if you plead guilty and send in a check, you will pay the full amount of the ticket (which can be considerable), plus it may cause your insurance to go up (which can be EVEN MORE considerable).
• Contest the ticket (plead “not guilty).
• Explain mitigating circumstances (plead “guilty with an explanation”).
As an aside, if you’re not sure, call your insurance agent – today – and ask if a ticket will affect your insurance rates. Do this now – BEFORE you receive a ticket. If your agent says it will NOT affect your rates, then “guilty” and “guilty with an explanation” become a lot more attractive.
If your insurance rates will not be affected, and you just want to get on with your life, then, by all means, just pay it. But, understand that the infraction WILL go on your record – and your insurance company may not be as forgiving the next time around.
Whichever option you choose, remember to return your ticket (MAKE A COPY OF BOTH SIDES) within 15 calendar days. Failure to do so may result in the license being suspended.
But, it you’re going to plead “guilty” and send in the fine anyway, for a little extra work, you can plead “guilty with an explanation” and possibly save yourself some money. If you do, the court will schedule you for a “mitigation” hearing, where you will have the opportunity to explain your story. But, please understand, if you request a mitigation hearing, you are still pleading “guilty”. The infraction CANNOT be dismissed, it WILL go on your record, and it may affect your insurance rates. The usual result of a mitigation hearing is to have the fine lowered. Sometimes it is cut in half, sometimes even more (and, of course, sometimes you still pay the entire ticket – but the fine cannot be increased). It’s up to the judge, who will base the decision on the severity of the infraction and your explanation of the circumstances, as well as your driving record. But, again, if you know it won’t affect your insurance, it’s not a bad alternative.
One advantage of a mitigation hearing is that you can request a deferral. I’ll explain more about that option in the next section.
Oh, some jurisdictions will let you mitigate (or even contest) by mail – officially it is called a “Decision on Written Statements” and is covered by rules in IRLJ 3.5. Some jurisdictions allow it, some don’t. Call the Clerk of the Court (or check the online website) if you’re interested – especially if you’re just going to request a deferral.
One last word about mitigation hearings – there is NO APPEAL from the decision.
Deferred Findings (or Deferral)
RCW 46.63.070 (5) allows WA courts to “defer findings” in some traffic infractions. There are two restrictions: 1) You may not receive more than ONE deferral every SEVEN years, and 2) You are not eligible if you have a Commercial Drivers License (CDL) – even if the citation was issued while you were driving your personal vehicle.
Here’s what a deferral means. Basically, the court “finds” that you are “guilty”. It will then defer entering those findings for some period of time – up to one year. If you don’t receive any more traffic citations during the deferral period, the court will DISMISS this ticket. The courts may impose an “administrative fee” (usually $100 - $150, but sometimes more). It may also impose other conditions (such as traffic school), which must also be met (this is very rare).
Basically, what that means is that this ticket will NOT appear on your driving record, and your insurance company, therefore, will not learn of it. If you’re a young driver, that’s REALLY a good thing – I’ve heard of insurance rates going up $100/month or more as a result of ONE infraction.
Now, the downside comes if you DO get another ticket during the deferral period, BOTH infractions will appear on your record. Some courts reinstate the original fine for your ticket (although some don’t). Your insurance costs will probably sky-rocket – assuming your insurance company doesn’t just drop you.
Keep in mind that a deferral is NOT “automatic”. It is up to the judge. Each jurisdiction is different. For example, some courts will routinely NOT grant deferrals for “school zone” or “construction zone” violations – some will. Some will not grand deferrals for “negligent driving second degree” (a $550 fine, by the way), but some will. Some courts allow you to request a deferral by mail or even email, some don’t. MOST courts, however, will NOT allow a deferral AFTER a contested hearing. In other words, if you request a contested hearing, you will probably be given the opportunity to defer BEFORE your case begins. Also, some courts will not grant a deferral if you subpoena witnesses.
In order to request a deferral, you must first request a “mitigation” or “contested” hearing. Then contact the Clerk of the Court and ask about their policy concerning deferrals – can you request it by mail, what will it cost, etc.
If a deferral is granted, drive VERY CAREFULLY. Remember, you won’t be eligible for another deferral for SEVEN years.