Do Police Officers Purposely Issue Bad Traffic Tickets?

I talk to many people each day about a traffic ticket they received. A small percentage of the people I consult with tell me straight up that “they did it”, the “it” being whatever traffic violation they were charged with.

A larger percentage of the people I consult with tell me that they did nothing wrong and have a particular explanation for why they were issued a ticket. It was a trap, it was quota-driven at the end of the month, the officer created a hazard, I have out of state plates, it’s because I’m driving a Mercedes or it’s because I’m driving a cab…

I won’t say that people are making excuses or unwilling to take responsibility. I think people genuinely think these things are true in many cases. Moreover, I can’t say that the conversations I have with people are necessarily representative of the overall population of people who have been issued traffic tickets. I speak to the portion of people who are considering fighting and potentially hiring an attorney. I don’t get to speak to those who just admit guilt and pay the ticket so I don’t know what these people may have to say about their particular incident.

At very least I can say for sure that plenty of people who get traffic tickets feel there may have been some ulterior motive, not an actually traffic violation, behind the issuance of their ticket.

Here are some very quick thoughts on three particular types of “bad tickets” and ulterior motives for issuing them I hear mentioned by clients and potential clients. The ticket was issued because of who I am and/or the car I drive, the ticket was issued because it was the end of the month (quota) and the speed trap ticket.

1. Did I just get this ticket simply because I’m rich (driving a Porsche)…or maybe because I’m obviously not rich and won’t fight too hard (taxi), because I’m from out of state, etc? Would an officer write a ticket that had no basis in reality? Do you think lawyers over-bill clients? Do doctors prescribe medicine because a sales rep gave them Jets tickets? Do waiters urinate in soup? There are definitely some bad apples in every bunch so everything is possible. That said, it’s hard to picture too many officers literally pulling people over for absolutely no reason other than who they appear to be or where they are from. On the other hand, what about an officer who observes 100 cars speeding on a stretch and only has time to pick out five or six to issue tickets? How does the officer choose which ones to pick? It’s reasonable to assume that some bias and profiling does enter this decision making, but if the person pulled over was indeed speeding we still can’t technically call it a “bad ticket”. All in all, it’s considerably more likely one may be pulled over in partbecause of the car they are driving or some similar factor than it is to be pulled over and issued a ticket based only on such factors.

2. I don’t think there are strict quotas. It’s unlikely that an officer is ever in a position where writing three more tickets before the end of the month gets the job done but only two more and he risks facing some discipline. Officers are sent out on traffic patrol and I’m sure there is some general sense of what is reasonable productivity based on the length of their tour and the location of patrol. There may be some prodding if an officer seems unmotivated to issue summonses but it seems hard to believe there is some exact minimum number per officer per month that needs to be reached. Perhaps an undeserved or bad ticket may be issued here and there just after such prodding from a superior officer, but I’ve always been slightly skeptical of the very specific monthly quota claims that some seem convinced exist.

3. Speed traps? In some cases, officers are at locations popularly referred to as speed traps because it’s simply a place where a lot of people tend to speed. In such cases it’s no “trap”–it’s just a location in need of speed enforcement. On the other hand, some officers sit at locations that just doesn’t seem fair. A 50 mph highway goes down to 35 mph about a quarter mile prior to a toll plaza and an officer pulls you over doing 55 right after that 35 mph sign. You are still nowhere near the toll and you are driving at a very natural speed for that highway and you’ve just come out of a higher zone. Perhaps this can be considered a trap. While the trap may indeed seem unfair, technically no one “trapped” anyone into doing anything nor is it a “bad” ticket. The officer caught you exceeding the speed limit and he just sees it as clever place to sit and do his job.

I think all in all many of the so called “bad” tickets may not actually technically be so “bad”. They may be unlucky or you may feel singled out or perhaps the officer could have issued a warning or perhaps there was no dangerous situation created by your action or perhaps the sign was new or everyone else does it or the speed limit was too low for that stretch of road… As accurate as those claims may be in some cases, none of them actually adress the real issue–did you technically commit a traffic violation? There may be some truly “bad” tickets written by officers but a close honest look at most cases will show there are probably a lot fewer than people think there are.

Good/bad tickets aside, the procedure for fighting a traffic ticket is the same for every ticket ranging from the most to least deserved. If you have been charged with something and wish to avoid the points and other liabilities that come with a conviction, there’s always a way to try to do something about it. Courts which are negotiable are negotiable even with those who blatantly committed the violation at hand and courts which force traffic hearings (the TVB) require the same evidence from officers regardless of the true underlying reason for the ticket.

By Scott Feifer