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What To Expect in Traffic Court

Q: I received a traffic citation. What will happen when I appear in court?
A:
Your first appearance in court is called an arraignment. At the arraignment, the judge will ask if you have received a copy of the ticket and understand the charge(s) against you. The judge also will also explain the potential penalties for each offense and then ask what plea you wish to enter. 

Q: What are the potential penalties?
A: 
The potential penalties from the court if convicted of a traffic violation include: monetary fined, points on your driver's license, license suspension or revocation, and jail time (for more serious offenses). Most traffic violations--including most speeding tickets--are minor misdemeanors, carrying a fine of up to $150 and two points on your license. However, if you have had more than one moving violation within the past 12 months, you could face higher fines and other more serious penalties. Some traffic offenses, such as Operating a Vehicle Under the Influence (OVI) and Driving Under Suspension (DUS), are first-degree misdemeanors carrying penalties of up to $1,075 in fines, suspension of your driver's license and potential jail time.

Q: What plea choices do I have?
A:
At the arraignment, you must plead guilty, not guilty or no contest. If you plead guilty, the judge will immediately find you guilty and sentence you. If you plead no contest, the judge most likely will find you guilty, because by making such a plea you are stating that you do not dispute the facts set forth in the complaint (the traffic citation). However, you will be allowed to offer an explanation before the judge decides the punishment. A plea of no contest cannot be used against you in a civil case. If you plead not guilty, your case will be set for trial.  (See below for information about engaging a lawyer.)

Q: If I plead not guilty, how soon will my case be set for trial?
A:
The law sets out very specific time frames for a criminal case to be brought to trial. The time frames range from 30 to 180 days for misdemeanors depending on the seriousness of the offense. You can waive your “right to speedy trial” so your case can be set at your convenience or the convenience of the court.

Q: After I plead not guilty and the case is set for trial, what happens next?
A:
The judge may schedule a pre-trial. If not, the next step is the trial itself.

Q: What happens at a pre-trial?
A:
A pre-trial is an informal conference between you, your attorney (if you are represented) and the prosecutor. At this time, you will undergo plea negotiations to see whether your case can be resolved without a trial. During the pretrial, the evidence is reviewed, the prosecutor makes recommendations for punishment, and you provide information about factors that might explain or excuse your conduct. If a plea agreement is reached, the judge is told and the agreement is entered on the record. If there is no agreement, the judge will schedule further dates any necessary motion hearings and the trial.

Q: What is a motion hearing?
A:
In some cases, issues of law (not fact) need to be decided before the trial. You ask the court to decide issues of law by filing motions, and the judge will rule on these motions before trial. At a motion hearing, you present evidence to support your motion. For example, a “motion to suppress” asks the judge to decide whether or not all of the prosecution’s evidence can be used against you at trial.

Q: Can my case be tried by a jury?
A:
It depends. You are not entitled to a jury trial for minor misdemeanor offenses. So, the judge will hear minor traffic offenses. However, any offense that carries potential jail time can be tried by a jury if you ask for a jury trial in a timely manner, usually no later than ten days before the trial date.

Q: Can I have a lawyer?
A: 
You can hire your own attorney to represent you at any or all stages of a case. If you cannot afford an attorney, and your case involves an offense that carries potential jail time, you can ask the court to appoint a lawyer for you. Your request should be made at the arraignment. You will be asked to provide the court with financial information. If the court finds you to be indigent, an attorney will be appointed to represent you.

Q: What happens at trial?
A:
At the trial, the prosecutor goes first because the prosecution has the “burden of proof” and must prove you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Witnesses are called to testify. You (or your attorney if you are represented) will be allowed to question the witnesses. After the prosecutor has finished presenting the state's case, you can--but are not required to--call your witnesses or testify on your own behalf. At the end of the trial, the judge (or the jury if there is one) will weigh the evidence and find you guilty or not guilty. If you are found guilty, the judge will sentence you.

1/2/2013

This "Law You Can Use" column was provided by the Ohio State Bar Association (OSBA).It was originally prepared by Tammie Riley Jones, Columbiana County assistant prosecuting attorney, and updated by Douglas E. Riddell Jr. and Bridget Purdue Riddell of Riddell Law LLC in Columbus.

Articles appearing in this column are intended to provide broad, general information about the law. Before applying this information to a specific legal problem, readers are urged to seek advice from an attorney.

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