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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. 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 (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).
What follows is one veteran motor officer’s guide to Traffic Court Testimony. And it all starts months prior with:
The Traffic Stop
Good testimony in traffic court starts with good notes contemporaneous to the stop. (Beat cops, “contemporaneous” means “existing or occurring in the same period of time”.) When the stop is done and the violator is driving away, take one minute to write 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 the hell “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.
When you get the subpoena for the case, put it on your calendar so you don’t forget your court date. 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 Date
When the fateful day arrives, pull the copy of the cite and the subpoena. Review your notes…you know, the ones you wrote eight months ago, right?! If you are fortunate enough, 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.
When your case is called, don’t just bound up all enthusiastic-like. Take a deep breath…get that oxygen to your dome before you vapor lock. Here are 7 Keys to Testimony:
1. Identify yourself and confirm you were in full uniform and driving a marked PD 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. Seems 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 have 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. You’ll want to 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. (Below, you’ll have the opportunity to get 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 of 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. (Amusing aside: I’ve actually had defendants snitch off their own bad attitudes in open court. It’s always awesome and hilarious.)
The defendant will have an opportunity to ask you questions. Answer them succinctly. This ain’t your chance to wax philosophic. If you can keep them to a “yes” or “no”, most of the time that is the way to go. 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.
If you follow what I’ve laid out above, I feel confident in wishing you a hearty “Congrats” on the win!