California Drivers May Lose Advantage When Contesting Traffic Tickets


by Geoff Mousseau

California is the only state that permits drivers to contest traffic tickets by mail.  Recent developments suggest that this advantage may soon be eliminated. The back of each traffic ticket refers to ìtrial by written declaration.î  This strange reference is to a process that has, until recently, only been known to lawyers.   But Trial by Mail is available to anyone who doesn’t want to spend the time or take the risk of appearing in court for a traffic trial.

Trial by Mail is a simple process where, rather than giving testimony about a ticket in person in court, both the driver and the traffic officer write down their versions of events and mail it in.  The judge then makes a decision based on what was presented in writing.  Drivers have a greater chance of success using Trial by Mail. But the California Judicial Counsel has taken steps suggesting that Trial by Mail is under attack.

California Courts report that less than 10% of those with tickets go to trial.   Last May, the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court asked for ìa court rule that makes it clear Californians do not have to pay for a traffic infraction before being able to appear in court.î  She characterized the problem as ìan access to justice issue.î  To fight a ticket, you had to post ìbailî equal to the fine. The ìbailî includes amounts for the alleged violation, plus substantial court costs and fees.

In June, a new California Rule of Court was adopted to prohibit courts from requiring bail before contesting a traffic ticket.  However, this only applies to drivers who can afford the time to appear in court, not those who fight their ticket by mail. The cost of ìbailî will funnel drivers toward court and away from a Trial by Mail, the only choice where the driver has an advantage. Legislative reports emphasized the revenue potential for resolving the companion problem they addressed in the September bill, the collection of unpaid/uncollected tickets and fines.  The implication is, so long as Trial by Mail results in less revenue for the State, it is at risk. According to the 2015 Court Statistics Report, almost all drivers who seek a court trial lose. Not so for Trial by Mail.

People are using Trial by Mail because a substantial number of them actually win, resulting in a refund of the ìbailî that was posted. Anyone who wants to try it can find the necessary forms on the DMV website.  Or, online services will help drivers through the process.  For most people it is worth the cost of using an online service.  These sites are similar to using LegalZoom, and some offer a money back guarantee. Because of the tools you get on sites such as and, your chances of getting a ticket dismissed may be even higher.  Fill out a simple form with the information that ës already on the citation.  Using the information you provide, either site will email forms that you simply sign and mail to the court.
Trial by Mail is the best chance to get a ticket dismissed, it saves time and money, and its easy and quick.  This is why more and more people are using Trial by Mail every day.  The Chief Justice was right, Californians actually do want greater access to justice.

Photo Credit: Doug Wertman

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