Speeding Tickets in Santa Clara County
This "Legal Guide" provides general information for people interested in contesting traffic tickets in Santa Clara County. It does NOT establish an attorney-client relationship or formally constitute legal advice.
Santa Clara Traffic Court LocationTraffic cases in Santa Clara are typically heard at the "Homestead Courthouse." It is located at: 1095 Homestead Road, Santa Clara, CA 95050.
The Process-The Traffic StopWhen you are pulled over and handed a traffic ticket you have been handed a "complaint." You must sign it and agree to appear in Court no later than the listed date or pay the fine/fee. You then are presented with a choice. Either, pay the fine and get on with your life, or contest the ticket in Court.
Courtesy NoticeThe citation is usually entered in the court system four to eight weeks after you receive it. Once the citation is in the system, you will receive a "Courtesy Notice" in the mail outlining your options. Check the Court's "Traffic Case Info" website to learn if your citation is in the Court's system yet. You will not be able to pay your fine, or take care of your citation until it is in the Court's system.
If after eight weeks you are still not able to find the information you need from the "Traffic Case Info" website , on your copy of your citation there should be a telephone number listed. You can call during normal business hours to obtain more information about your citation.
Importantly, the "Courtesy Notice" is a courtesy only. Failure to receive one in the mail does not absolve you of any obligation.
What Rights do You Have in Traffic Court?Most traffic cases are infractions. Under California Penal Code Section 19.6 you have all the same rights in an infraction case as a misdemeanor case EXCEPT the right to a jury trial and the right to a public defender. Thus, you have the right to present evidence at trial, to remain silent, to cross exam witnesses, to be represented by a private attorney, to a speedy trial, etc. Importantly, the burden of proof is "Reasonable Doubt" and you are presumed innocent.
Trail by Declaration-Optional StepThis is an optional step. Some lawyers always use the trial by declaration option. They see it as a free bite at the apple. The burden is on the government, and if you lose you can still have a court trial.
However, I almost NEVER use this step. It makes it more likely the officer will show at the trial. Also, people often end up waiving their fifth amendment right to remain silent. They make admissions that later are used against them at trial. If you elect to do this step, you must pay bail beforehand.
Who Presides Over Traffic Cases in Santa Clara County?Generally there are three kinds of judicial officers who sit on the bench and "hear" these cases. They are: 1) Judges 2) Traffic Commissioners and 3) Pro Tems. Traffic Commissioners are "temporary judges" who can issue the same orders as a judge. Pro Tems are usually attorneys who sit on the bench in traffic hearings in order to get experience and one day become a judge.
Arraignment-The First Court DateMost contested traffic ticket cases in Santa Clara have two or more court dates. The first court date is the arraignment.
Who will be there? The judicial officer, the court staff (usually a clerk and possibly an interpreter) the baliff, and the other defendants charged with traffic offenses. There will also be private attorneys. There will NOT be anyone from the district attorney's office. Nor will there the officer who pulled you over be there.
There can be a very large crowd at a traffic arraignment hearing in Santa Clara. You can spend several hours at this hearing. One benefit of hiring an attorney is they can attend the hearing WITHOUT you being present. Not only will you avoid the unpleasantness of this hearing, you will not miss work.
This will be a very short hearing. You will not be able to tell the judge your side of the story here. Instead you will be told your charges and rights, and asked to enter a plea. You can plea "guilty", "no contest" or "not guilty." If you plea "guilty" or "no contest" you will often be sentenced to (given) a lower fine or fee. You will be convicted and your record will reflect this. But, the case will be over. If you plea "not guilty" you will then be asked if you want to "waive time." You have a right to have your trial within 45 days. If you waive time, the court can assign a trial date after the 45 day limit.
MotionsMotions are NOT common in traffic cases. However, there are times a motion to compel discovery, a motion to withdraw a plea, or a motion to dismiss in the interests of justice may be appropriate. This is really something you need help with. Either hire an attorney, or visit the Santa Clara County Library to get samples of these motions. The Santa Clara County Law Librarians cannot prepare the motion for you or offer you legal advice. But, they can show you resources which can greatly help you prepare your motion.
TrialThe most common question I get asked is what is the probability my ticket gets dismissed at trial? Dismissals do occur. There are two ways this commonly happens. The most likely is you enter into what I call the "Traffic Cop Lottery" system. If the officer does not appear at the trial date, you can ask for a dismissal. There are some judicial officers who will allow the officer ask for one continuance (postponement) of the trial date. Others will just dismiss the ticket. This is the most common way people beat their ticket.
The second is you have a trial and win. Traffic trials have three parts. First, the officer puts on the State's case. Usually they just testify. They do not call witnesses or show exhibits. They may show a video if they video recorded you. You have a right to cross exam and challenge this evidence. Second, the defense (you or your attorney) puts on the defense's case. If you have witnesses, this is when they would testify. The officer has the right to cross exam these witnesses. Third, are closing arguments. The whole trial usually lasts ten or less minutes. Usually, the officer wins a speeding ticket trial. Especially if you were clocked at 10 miles or more above the speed limit.
Amending the Complaint-Negotiating a Plea DealWhat if the officer appears at the trial and I do not want to go through with it? One option is to try to negotiate a deal with the officer. Some officers are willing to "amend the complaint." They are willing to change the charge from speeding to "coasting" or another offense that does not carry a point on your DMV record. In exchange, you plead "no contest" or "not guilty." This is a win-win. Both parties get to leave Court quickly and avoid trial. You avoid a point on your DMV record.
Each agency has its own rules and customs regarding these deals. Historically, CHP was not allowed to negotiate lower charges.
What if the Officer Shows and Will Not Negotiate?What if I was driving more than 10 miles an hour above the speed limit, the officer shows on the trial date, and will not negotiate a plea deal? Then you can go to trial, or enter a "no contest" or "not guilty" plea and ask the Court for a reduced fine and traffic school (if you are eligible).
If you are eligible, you can "mask your conviction" by taking traffic school. You are NOT eligible for traffic school if you went to traffic school in the last 18 months. You are also not eligible if you are charged with an equipment offense, parking ticket, misdemeanor, alcohol or drug related offense or offenses in a commercial vehicle.
AppealsIf you go to trial and lose you have a right to appeal the Court's decision. This requires some work. You have 30 days to file a notice of appeal. You must "perfect the record." You can send a verbatim transcript which can cost several hundred dollars. Or you can send a settled settlement. This is free. Write a summary of all facts said at trial. DA will listen to tape recorded version, write their version of the facts and once the record is certified on appeal the opening brief will be due and filed. After you file your brief, the DA has 30-45 days to respond. You can then file a reply. Then you have the hearing. There are very few traffic trial appeals. The whole process takes up to a year and a half. It is time consuming and expensive.
ExpungementYou cannot expunge a conviction from your driving record in California. Most employers do not check DMV records anyway. If you drive for a living (i.e. you are a commercial driver) background checks usually require either a 3 year DMV record or a 10 year DMV check. There is no way to "clear" these records.
Should I Hire an Attorney?Generally, people do not need to hire an attorney for a simple speeding ticket. However, commercial drivers absolutely should. So should people who do not want to miss work. An attorney can handle USUALLY the entire case with out you ever appearing in Court (there are exceptions). Also, having an attorney substantially increases your chance of winning at trial, making a record for appeal, and successfully negotiating a plea deal with an officer.
I strongly recommend you hire a LOCAL attorney if you want quality representation. There are state wide traffic firms that offer to handle these cases are a very reasonable price. The problem is they are high volume outfits that out source their cases. They typically have offices in either Los Angeles or San Diego. They have a website that generates a lot of "traffic." Once you pay your fees, they send out a request to a "on call" attorney service to have an attorney appear at the arraignment, and then another one appear on the day of trial. If you have questions about your case and call their offices, you typically will speak with a low paid worker who is not an attorney and knows nothing about the law. The Los Angeles Times recently questioned whether or not these firms are running a scam. If you just want an attorney to appear on your court dates so you do not miss work, these firms are an ok choice. But you get what you pay for.
If you choose to represent yourself, I highly recommend you read NOLO Press' Guide on fighting traffic tickets. It is an outstanding resource available at most libraries in California. Also, review the additional sources of information provided below. These resources will help you prepare to fight your traffic ticket case in Santa Clara County.
Questions Regarding License Status and Driving RecordIf you have questions about the status of your license or your driving record call the DMV’s Mandatory Actions Unit at (916) 657-6525, or write to them at:
Department of Motor Vehicles
Mandatory Actions Unit, Mail Station J233
PO Box 942890
Sacramento, CA 94290-0001