When You Get That Ticket….

Mionske-coverCruisin’ for a bruisin’? If you think that on a bicycle you’re not as vulnerable as a motorist to a traffic ticket, think again. As we explain, the state vehicular code always applies and local ordinances matter too. Rolling that stop sign, weaving in-and-out of traffic, riding against the flow (all things we see every day) can land you in court with a big fine. Then what to do? Attorney Bob Mionske, in a three-part series called ‘Ticket Talk,’ offers some tips. It’s mandatory reading for cyclists and motorists – and often we’re both.

For many Americans, the moving violation stop is an encounter that serves as the most common introduction to the court system. It ain’t pretty: rigid procedure, inefficient processing, and exorbitant fines conjure cynicism and add insult to the injury of the citation. Recent State Superior Court cutbacks in California have only made matters worse with longer waits and higher court costs. If there’s any take-away from a trip to traffic court, it’s that the experience, rather than the fine, is the real deterrent.

But that stops few scofflaws on a bike or otherwise. In Southern California where riders are relatively few, the cycling subculture and scant provision of bike-friendly infrastructure (not to mention next to no bike-handling education) means that most of us ride chaotic and perilous streets without sufficient training (and sometimes little discipline). Bringing childhood riding skills to transportation cycling in today’s city begs for a citation if not serious injury.

Thankfully bike-practice attorney Bob Mionske is here to remind us how to handle that inevitable traffic stop. In his three-part introduction on bicycling.com, he reminds us that the key to fighting that ticket is to accept it gracefully while marshaling at the scene evidence for your defense. Then in court state your case clearly and succinctly and work all of the angles to poke holes in the prosecution case.

Veteran ticket-fighters won’t learn much from these Mionske’s tips, though. If you’ve been through the process a few times you’re likely to know the tricks: delaying arraignment; deferring the court date, once set; and of course preying that the officer can’t appear on the assigned day. All seem more effective than arguing the merits of riding over driving, say – a tactic better suited to the court of public opinion than the courtroom

In part 1Mionske makes these recommendations:

  • When stopped, don’t cop to anything (“Do you know why I stopped you?” is fishing for evidence,he says) and be courteous before, during, and after ticket-writing;
  • Remember that your battle is not with the cop but with the court, so don’t stand out in the cop’s memory or otherwise give reason for the cop to show up at court (i.e., don’t be vindictive);
  • If you weigh time & hassle against the cost & points and decide to fight it, carefully game your case, and it should start with the moment that you’re stopped.

In part 2 Mionske advises that going to court might be beneficial IF:

  • You can highlight circumstances or factors that might work on your behalf, like you didn’t see a stop sign or you were avoiding a road hazard;
  • You want to keep the points off your license to avoid higher auto insurance costs or if you need to keep it off your record because it will adversely affect your job;
  • You want to arrange for traffic school or maybe bargain for a low fine or for community service in the event of conviction; and most crucially,
  • If you’re injured in a bike-involved collision and you’ll want to mitigate your responsibility and/or liability with damages in mind (he explains in detail the court’s role in assigning liability in his must-read, Bicycling and the Law).

In part 3 Mionske offers some courtroom strategies that may help you fight the ticket that you did or didn’t deserve. No sense to summarize those here: have a read.

As his series suggests, once we’re ticketed there is much that’s outside our control. From the time we’ll spend in the courthouse to whether the judge awoke on the wrong side of the bed, it’s literally the mercy of the court. For our part, we can only game our case and maximize our chances by hook or by crook. In our experience, it’s all about finding a legal hook to hang your hat on.

But if much of the process is beyond our control, there is an area that is fully within our control: We can ride safely and in accord with the law at all times. Mostly it’s common sense: go with the direction of traffic; obey all traffic control devices; ride predictably (and defensively); and perhaps most important, own the patch of pavement that’s yours under state law. Needless to say, the best way to handle it is not to precipitate it.

The need to ride responsibly can’t be overstated. Hot-dogging and careless cyclists not only maximize their own chance for injury and a citation, they minimize our odds in the courtroom because we’re all viewed as scofflaws. Irresponsible riding also creates unnecessary drag in the political sphere just as we’re trying to win bike-friendly improvements on Bundy, say. The trolls come out of the woodwork to brand cyclists anarchists and heretics and worse and NIMBY resident groups can complain that we don’t deserve our share of their streets.

We saw it here in Beverly Hills during the Traffic & Parking Commission’s discussion about ‘pilot’ program improvements. The commissioners suggested in their comments that they view cyclists as scofflaws. And at least one suggested that we don’t deserve bicycle lanes until we shape up. Commissioners are appointed presumably because they possess special knowledge about transportation in the city, but their discussion betrayed a basic unfamiliarity with the principles of cycling for transportation and complete streets.

(Not coincidentally, policymakers doled out only a few crumbs under that program. So our roads in Beverly Hills will remain for the time being the province of motorists.)

Whatever the challenges in the courtroom and outside, it doesn’t mean that we can’t ride responsibly, battle the misconceptions, and (per Mionske) do our best to win vindication if we’re cited whether we’re guilty as charged or simply charged and thus presumed guilty. (Read Mionske’s original post from which these three parts were adapted.)

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