A veteran motor officer’s guide to traffic court testimony

Traffic court isn’t personal and you aren’t there to represent yourself — you are there as a representative of your department and your state — so try to use these seven keys to making the best of every appearance

One of my biggest complaints about the FTO process is the distinct lack of training in how to testify — particularly in traffic court. The first time I testified I was terrified because no one had told me what to do, where to stand, or what to say. At least in criminal court, there is a DA to give you a heads up about the questions they’ll ask and what to expect — not so in traffic court.

Years later and countless times testifying, I barely give the copies of my cites a glance before walking to the lectern to testify — with time and experience comes confidence. 

Perhaps you’re new to patrol. Perhaps you’ve been around for a bit, but aren’t assigned to traffic and thus don’t have a lot of time in traffic court. What follows is one veteran motor officer’s guide to traffic court testimony. 

The Stop
Good testimony in traffic court starts with good notes contemporaneous to the stop. When the stop is done and the violator is driving away, take one minute to write down the details of the stop on the back of your copy of the cite. 

You’ll thank yourself six months down the road when you have no clue just who “John Davis” is or what he did.

When you hit the end of your shift, file your copy away somewhere safe that you can easily locate again when/if the subpoena rolls in.

The Subpoena 
When you get the subpoena for the case, put the court date on your calendar. I constantly get subpoenas for nine months in the future. I don’t know what I’ll be doing in October, so it behooves me to put it in my calendar.

Then, pull your copy of the ticket and staple it with the subpoena. This will save you time scrambling the morning of the court date.

Day of Court
When the fateful day arrives, pull the copy of the cite and the subpoena. Review your notes. If you are fortunate enough to have it, review video of the traffic stop to further refresh your recollection of the incident. 

The defendant will most likely not have the benefit of either of these things.

In Court
When your case is called, take a deep breath — get that oxygen to your dome before you vapor lock — and follow these seven keys to testimony:

1. Identify yourself and confirm you were in full uniform and driving a marked police vehicle. If you miss this basic step, be ready to lose your case.

2. Identify the defendant and how you confirmed their identity at the time of the stop. Assume the judge/commissioner is a stickler for actually having the right violator in court. 

3. Describe the scene simply. You don’t have include latitude/longitude, but you do need to describe the scene in words everyone can understand. You want the judge/commissioner to be able to picture the scene in his/her head. Use directions (north, south, etc.). You needn’t get more in depth than that. What was the weather like? How about the traffic? It can be a fine line between leaving out important descriptors and including extraneous information that has nothing to do with anything.

4. Describe the violation. Make sure you cover the elements (just like in a crime report). If you’re testifying to a stop sign violation, include important things like the vehicle didn’t stop at the marked limit line. Also, make sure there was a limit line. Don’t be the guy that says “limit line” and then has to explain why the defendant is showing a picture of a crosswalk without a limit line.

5. Include statements, if any. Recently, I changed my pitch during a traffic stop from asking if the driver knew why I stopped them to simply telling them why they were stopped. This change has significantly reduced the need for statements from the driver. Of course, if they start making statements, you’ll want to note them after the stop is done (see above).

6. Include training if applicable/required (primarily for speeding stops). If your state requires certain training for the use of RADAR or LIDAR, you will need to articulate that in court. Most violations, however, don’t require specialized training. Click here a free guide to court testimony that includes an example of speeding testimony.

7. Resist the urge to make the defendant look like a jerk (even though they may have been). I’ve fallen victim to this temptation a couple times. It only made me look petty and vindictive. Telling the judge/commissioner that “Mr. Smith called me an asshole” has nothing to do with the violation. 

The defendant will have an opportunity to ask you questions. Answer them succinctly. If your answer requires a bit more explanation, do so, but keep your soliloquy to a minimum. The more you talk, the more you’re opening yourself up for issues. If you’ve been clear in your testimony, cross typically won’t last long because you will have answered all the questions already.

Finally, be respectful and professional. Traffic court isn’t personal and you aren’t there to represent yourself — you are there as a representative of your department and your state.

For a complete — and free — guide to court testimony, click here.  

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