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How to Beat a Speeding Ticket in New York City
What is Speeding in NYC?
In New York City, the maximum speed is 50 mph, which is the maximum speed limit on all highways in New York City, including the FDR and West Side Highway/Henry Hudson Parkway in Manhattan, the BQE and Belt Parkway in Brooklyn, the Van Wyck, Clearview Expressway and Cross Island Expressway in Queens and the Deegan and Sprain in the Bronx. On many stretches of these highways, the speed limit is even lower and it is in these areas in which the NYPD will frequently set up speed traps to ensnare you into the DMV/TVB web.
Where there is no posted speed limit, the maximum speed in New York City (including all residential streets) is 30mph. Yes, that's correct: Despite a wave of green lights and taxis exceeding 70 mph up 6th Avenue, the maximum legal speed is 30 mph. Most police officers provide a safety gap that allows a driver to 'legally' speed anywhere between 10-15 mph over the legal limit without enforcement. So, unless it's an extremely slow day or the police officer is trying to make up for a month's worth of donut runs, it's extremely rare to see a speeding ticket issued to a driver doing 38 mph in a 30 mph zone.
Speeding is covered by the New York State VTL (Vehicle and Traffic Law) under section 1180.
The penalties for speeding depend on how many miles per hour above the legal limit you were convicted of speeding.
- 1-10 mph over: 3 points
- 11-20 mph over: 4 points
- 21-30 mph over: 6 points
- 31-40 mph over*: 8 points
- 41+ mph over*: 11 points
If a driver accumulates 11 points for traffic convictions in an 18-month period, the New York DMV may suspend or revoke your license for (usually) 31 days. It is important to note that points are assessed according to the date of the offense, not the date of the conviction.
If a driver accumulates 6 points in an 18-month period, the driver will be subjected to the Driver Responsibility Assessment, which is accompanied by a significant penalty of $100 a year for 6 points plus $25 a year for each additional point, for 3 years. You can read more about New York's Driver Responsibility Program here.
Fighting a Speeding Ticket in NYC
Fighting a speeding ticket issued in New York City is an uphill battle. All contested speeding tickets are heard by Administrative Law Judges who work for the Traffic Violations Bureau (TVB) at one of the TVB offices around the city (there are one or more in each borough). As a former Administrative Law Judge (ALJ), I know the pressures that these judges face from their supervisors to generate revenue for the City of New York. For this reason alone, it is unlikely that you will find a 'Mister Dismissal' anywhere in the system. After all, the City doesn't want the work of its traffic police to be in vain.
More distressing is the fact that the City has removed all discretion from the TVB Administrative Law Judge to reach a compromise or plea bargain with the defendant that would result in a reduction of points assessed to one's license. There is absolutely zero middle ground when it comes to a speeding ticket: The judge will either find you guilty of speeding at the speed cited by the ticket and assess the points required by the law or the judge will find you not guilty. Long gone are the days in which a 81 in a 50 can be reduced to a 59 in a 50 (thus saving you 5 points).
Because of the lack of discretion of the ALJ to reduce the speeding ticket to either a smaller speeding ticket, a lesser moving violation or an equipment violation, it is imperative for every driver charged with speeding to contest the ticket. You have absolutely nothing to lose by fighting a speeding ticket. The judge cannot hold you in contempt or tack on additional penalties for showing up and fighting your ticket.
Ok, this all sounds great but here's the kicker: How does one go about fighting a speeding ticket, anyway?
To Use a Lawyer or Not To Use a Lawyer
The decision to use a lawyer or not is largely dependent on your finances. The truth of the matter is that in some courts, having a lawyer can place you at a disadvantage. For example, I recently received a call from a tenant in a non-payment proceeding in Housing Court asking if they should hire a lawyer or not. I advised her that it will be difficult for her to tell the judge she doesn't have any money to pay rent while showing up with a high-priced lawyer in a three-piece suit!
The Deck is Stacked Against Self-Represented Drivers
The truth of the matter is that the 'trials' that occur at TVB are largely shams. 99% (perhaps 99.9% is a more accurate assessment) of the time, the judge will believe the word and testimony of the traffic officer over the word and testimony of the driver-defendant. Because of this, most New York traffic lawyers don't even advise their clients to appear in TVB -- it's simply a waste of their clients' time. Furthermore, unlike criminal court, there is no public defender to assist those individuals who cannot afford a private lawyer.
Q: So how does a lawyer beat a speeding ticket without the testimony of the driver?
A: By impeaching the testimony of the police officer.
How Lawyers use their Experience to Beat Speeding Tickets
NYPD Traffic Officers are often police officers at the beginning of their NYPD careers. In most cases, their recollection of the speeding event is limited to their notes, and in many cases, there notes and testimony are insufficient to earn a conviction when cross-examined by an experienced traffic lawyer.
Furthermore, there are a multitude of ALJs in each Traffic Violations Bureau Center. Like you will find in any court, some judges are friendly and fair while others are positively harsh and nasty. A driver would have absolutely no idea who would be the best person to hear their case, while an attorney who is practicing in that courtroom on a regular basis would be likely to have an encyclopedic knowledge of each judge and his tendencies as they relate to a particular case, police officer or set of facts.
Is it possible to win your case at trial without a lawyer? Perhaps, but in 18 years of practicing traffic law, I can count on two hands how many successful drivers I have witnessed..
Finally, and perhaps the best reason to use a lawyer if you have the finances to do so, is the time and hassle saved. As most people know, the strategy of adjourning a case in the hopes that the police officer will not appear has a lot of merit. Some judges will give the police officer two chances to appear but others will dismiss the case if the officer fails to appear. In any event, such a strategy may require you to appear in court several times. Depending on your occupation, this may not be worth your time. An investment banker, doctor or other professional may lose more money by missing a half day of work than it's worth. A New York City school teacher or other union employee may not want to use up vacation/sick days. For working professionals, hiring an attorney makes a lot of sense in terms of simply providing a concierge-level service.
How Much Does a NYC Traffic Lawyer Cost?
Expect to pay anywhere between $500-$1000 for a New York City traffic lawyer to fight your speeding ticket, depending on the severity of the violation, your point history and whether there are other violations encompassed in the same traffic stop (i.e. reckless driving, unsafe lane change, failure to signal, etc.)
Strategies and Tips for Beating Your Case Without a Lawyer
Let's face it. For many drivers, paying a lawyer $500 or more to fight a speeding ticket is just not within their ability and even if it was, there's no guarantee that the lawyer wins the case. So let's take a look at a few strategies that will be helpful in winning your case alone.
- Preparation of Trial Notebook: The most glaring difference between a lawyer and a person without a lawyer isn't how they dress (I've seen plenty of clients who outdress their lawyers!) but the preparation involved. Typically, a lawyer comes to court prepared to win the case in the event that the police officer shows up. Unfortunately, most unrepresented drivers show up in court with nothing but the hope that the officer fails to appear. Preparation is the most crucial element of winning a case and it all begins with EVIDENCE. Prior to coming to court, your goal is to obtain all of the evidence that supports your defense. Once you have all of your documents and evidence, you should invest a few dollars by going to Kinko's or Staples and having them create Exhibit tabs for your evidence and help your organize your documents into a trial notebook. In my years of experience as an Administrative Law Judge, I was always extremely impressed by clients who came to court organized, prepared and ready to present their evidence to me. Don't waste your day in court crossing your fingers and praying for a miracle -- be prepared.
- Photos, Photos, Photos: Take it from me -- there is nothing more annoying to an ALJ than having a defendant-driver come to court and tell him about a sign that they saw without having a single photograph to support the allegation. The fact is that police officers DO make mistakes. And they will almost never admit to them. It's up to YOU to bring all of your evidence to court and this includes ALL PHOTOGRAPHS that support your defense. If the posted speed limit was 30 and the officer wrote 15 mph, you cannot expect the ALJ to believe you when you tell him the posted limit was actually 30 mph. It's not about the facts -- it's about the facts you can PROVE.
- Be Polite: In any TVB trial, the police officer will testify first. Whatever you do, do NOT interrupt the officer, do NOT shake your head from side to side while he's testifying, and do NOT make cringing faces in an attempt to convince the judge the officer is lying. The most important thing for any judge to maintain in his courtroom is CIVILITY. Once the police officer has completed his testimony, you will have an opportunity to cross-examine him or her. Be patient and wait for your turn. And always refer the the ALJ as either 'Your Honor', 'Judge' or 'Sir'. It's not a glorious job, but using these words make them feel like it is.
- Cross-Examination: Effective cross-examination of the police officer is the most important key to beating a speeding ticket, but it's also the one thing that most drivers fail to do, whether it's because of nerves, fear of confrontation or lack of preparation. The key to cross-examining the officer is having done your research ahead of time and being prepared. Trust me, an unprepared lawyer can't do much better than an unprepared driver. Cross-examination should focus on the weaknesses in the police officer's case and your questions should be specifically designed to elicit yes or no answers.
- Your Testimony: After cross-examining the officer, you will have the opportunity to testify and present your documents. Use this time to present a copy of your trial notebook to the ALJ, with all of your tabbed exhibits. As you refer to each piece of evidence, mention the Exhibit Number or Letter ("As I turned onto 125th Street, I observed a sign indicating a speed limit of 25mph, as referenced in Exhibit A"). Take your time and address the ALJ and not the police officer. Finish your case by reviewing all the major points and concluding with, 'For these reasons and the failure of the officer to prove the state's case against me, I respectfully request that the ticket be dismissed.'
Once both parties have finished their testimony, the judge will issue a decision. If you are found guilty and your accumulated DMV points exceed 11, the judge may suspend revoke your driver's license. For this reason, it is imperative that you have a copy of your DMV driver's transcript with you to ensure that the judge's math is correct (no math skills are required to be a lawyer or judge) when it comes to both adding up your points and determining that the dates of the offenses all occurred within an 18 month period.