Most of the time, those of us who have had the unfortunate situation of getting tagged with a ticket did in fact violate the law. Whether intentional or not, traffic infractions (commonly known as “tickets”) are those crimes which do not require mens rea–or criminal intent–to perform the act. So whether we weren’t paying attention, unintentionally drove a little too fast, or didn’t notice that red light, we still violated the law and have to pay the fine.
Traffic infractions are what are known in the law as malum prohibitum acts, meaning that the Indiana General Assembly has prohibited certain behaviors or activities. These activities aren’t necessarily immoral or destructive, but they are wrong merely because we say they are.
So, when do situations arise that would warrant requesting a trial and contesting that ticket? Usually, those situations would be where the officer got the facts wrong. For example, if it was the car in front of you that was speeding (and not you) when the officer used his radar, you should plead your case.
In rare circumstances certain defenses may also be raised. An affirmative defense is one where you admit you committed the act, but you were justified in doing so because of some exceptional circumstance. For example, if someone threatening your life caused you to run a red light or speed, you may raise duress and coercion as an affirmative defense. Additionally, inclement weather and other unforeseen circumstances can sometimes cause situations where it is impossible to follow the law.
In most cases, the ticket has to be paid. Fortunately, however, that should not be the end inquiry. Many people are not aware that the Whitley County Prosecutor’s Office offers deferral programs to those who qualify. Under a deferral, you would pay a fee and agree not to violate the law for a certain period of time (usually six months to a year). After the deferral period, the ticket is dropped and never appears on your driving record.
Not everyone qualifies for a deferral, however, as the nature of the offense and driving history are relevant factors, among others.
In the event you are facing a ticket and are not sure whether you qualify for a deferral, you should contact a local attorney. Even if you are technically in violation of the law, sometimes there are facts and circumstances present that would warrant negotiation of the charge or taking it to trial. In other situations, a deferral or merely paying the infraction would be advisable.
With regard to “fighting the ticket”, many people are unaware that traffic infractions are now treated in Indiana as civil matters. See Cunningham v. State, 835 N.E.2d 1075 (Ind. Ct. App. 4th Dist. 2005). Therefore, many of the protections that are afforded to an accused in a criminal prosecution are not available. Moreover, the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard of evidence does not apply. The State only has to prove that the law was violated by a preponderance of the evidence. Ind. Code § 34-28-5-1(e). This lower standard makes it much easier for the State to prove its case. However, it is interesting to note that while many of the protections of criminal cases are not present, a person charged with a traffic infraction may still be entitled to a trial by jury.