Before I discuss the burden of proof at a civil traffic hearing, I want to discuss a what a civil traffic hearing is first.
If a police officer issues you a civil traffic ticket, you have a right to contest that ticket in court. To do so, you must request a civil traffic hearing on or before the date on your ticket. The court will then set a civil traffic hearing. You (and your attorney if you have one) will show up to court on the date of your civil traffic hearing, and so will the police officer who issued your ticket. The police officer will testify first about why he thinks you deserved the ticket, and then you will have an opportunity to question the officer, and then to present your case as to why you did not deserve the ticket. It is worth mentioning that the “rules of evidence” found in most court proceedings to not apply in civil traffic hearings, so you can pretty much say or present anything you want, as long as it is “relevant”. The judge may ask some questions too, and then the judge will make a decision. You will either be found “responsible” for committing the violation, or “not responsible”. If you are found responsible, you will have to pay a fine and the violation will be reported to the MVD. The MVD may impose additional consequences depending on the violation and your driving history. If you are found not responsible, you pay no fine and nothing is reported to the MVD. If the officer fails to appear for the civil traffic hearing (rare, but it does happen), the ticket will be dismissed.
What is the “burden of proof”?
The burden of proof has to do with how certain the judge has to be about whether or not you committed the alleged violation before the judge finds you responsible. In a civil traffic hearing, the burden of proof is a “preponderance of evidence.” In order to find you responsible for the alleged violation, the judge must find by a preponderance of evidence that you committed the alleged violation. In other words, the judge must believe that it was more likely than not that you committed the alleged violation. Another way to look at it is the judge must believe that there is a greater than 50% chance that you committed the alleged violation. As you can see, this is a very low burden of proof that requires no certainty by the judge that you committed the alleged violation. This is why civil traffic tickets are so difficult to fight. Contrast this with the much higher burden of proof (beyond a reasonable doubt) that applies in criminal cases.
How do you fight a civil traffic ticket with such a low burden of proof?
Your chances of success are best if you have some compelling evidence to support your case. An example might be that the officer ticketed you for traveling 79 mph in a 65mph zone, but the transmission in your vehicle is broken in such a manner that your vehicle is not physically capable to traveling faster than 60 mph. If you could put on evidence to document that, then you could create doubt as to the truth of the officer’s testimony. Another example might be in the case of a traffic accident ticket. Typically the officer shows up after the accident has occurred, so the officer did not see the events leading up to the accident. If you can put on credible evidence that, say, someone suddenly cut you off causing you to rear-end them, you may be able to create sufficient doubt as to the accuracy of the officer’s statements.
Often, the more detail you can provide, the more credible you will appear to the judge. Consider the defendant who simply says “I wasn’t driving that fast” versus the defendant who says, “I know I was not driving that quickly. I remember that day clearly because I was driving my baby niece to the park and I was very concerned about driving extra safely with her in the car.” Which statement is more credible?
If you have no compelling testimony to present, and your civil traffic hearing will simply be a “he said, she said” between you and the police officer, your chances of success are low. The courts typically find police officers to be very credible witnesses. This is why we always recommend taking defensive driving school to resolve a civil traffic violation if you are eligible. If you are not eligible for defensive driving school, you have nothing to lose by requesting and attending a civil traffic hearing, other than the time it takes to attend the hearing, and there is always the possibility that the officer will not show up.