Testifying and You

Recently, I’ve noticed a handful of newbie cops testifying in traffic court. Unfortunately, some of them have never been schooled on the proper way to testify. I’ve taken it upon myself to give a few tips to the uninitiated.

It’s always bothered me that during FTO, the important topic of testifying in court is not just minimal, but more often than not, completely ignored. My first time in court was nerve racking, sweat inducing, and mouth drying. I stumbled and started at what felt like every turn. Since I testify much more in traffic court, what follows will be more specific to that as opposed to criminal court.
1) Don’t read! I’ve seen a few officers stand in front of the judge and defendant and read their testimony. The judge inevitably stops them and tells them both he and the defendant deserve the officer’s best recollection of the violation. Officers are allowed to use their copy of the citation to refresh their memory, but reading a pre-prepared statement is unprofessional and calls into doubt whether the officer actually remembers the incident.
2) Practice! When you’re new to testifying, there’s nothing wrong with writing out what you want to say and practice it. Now, I know what you’re thinking. Aren’t you just memorizing the pre-prepared statement? That’s not what I mean. When you first start out, it’s a stressful experience. Writing down what you want to say and practicing your testimony outside of court helps reduce your nervousness and increases your confidence. Write down what your recollections are and practice it. Over and over and over. When I first started, I’d recite my testimony while I was getting ready for court, on the ride over, and in my head while others were testifying. After you’ve got a few cases under your belt, you won’t need to write out your testimony at all.
Each case is unique, but each testimony follows a similar pattern. There a few key points you’ve got to hit in each one. You’ve got to mention who you are, that you were in uniform and driving/riding a marked unit, the location of the violation, what violation occurred and the circumstances surrounding it, an enforcement stop was conducted, identify the driver/defendant and how they were identified on scene (verbal, CDL, ID card), any relevant statements made*, and that the driver/defendant signed the citation. This list is by no means comprehensive, but it does include most, if not all, of the things I mention each time I testify.
*I say “relevant” because when the driver/defendant calls you an asshole or asks you if you have anything better to do, it has nothing to do with the violation. If you bring up these things in court, it makes you appear like a petty, vindictive jerkoff….in my opinion. Conversely, if the defendant brings it up or claims you did or said something you didn’t, I think you’re all good to mention additional facts.
3) Pay attention! If you’re not called first, take the time to listen to other cases and how the more experienced officers testify. Listen to what works and what doesn’t. Come up with a spiel that works for you using bits and pieces of what you liked about other officer’s testimony.
4) Anticipate! Put yourself in the defendant’s shoes. What kinds of questions do you think they will ask. Are there any holes in your testimony they may try to exploit? Did you leave something out? The more specific and detailed you are, the less the defendant can use to trip you up.
5) Relax! It’s just traffic court, kids. You’re bound to lose some. Some you may well deserve to lose and some the judge may just get a wild hair. You never know. Just don’t let any of it discourage you about tomorrow’s case. If the defendant wins, thank the judge. If you win, thank the judge. Remember that you’re getting paid to be there regardless of the outcome. Believe me, if the defendant wins, he/she will eventually get another ticket and the whole rigmarole will start all over again.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic. Snark is encouraged. Being a prat is not.

7 thoughts on “Testifying and You

  1. I am a prosecutor who occasionally trains police on testifying in court, and it is gratifying to see the amount of similarity between my advice and that of an experienced officer. One additional thing that I learned from an officer and pass on at every class I teach is (for traffic court) to write on the ticket the very first words out of the driver's mouth, along with any other priceless gems uttered later. That practice helps the officer remember the particular driver. Additionally, the "don't you have anything better to do" guy is more likely to fight the ticket, and when the officer tells the judge what the driver's first words were, the hearing often turns out the officer's way.

  2. Great post!

    I'm definetly going to be sending my brother a link for it. He's sort of a newb (1 yr on the job), so I'm sure any advice he can get he'll take.

  3. As someone who had six tickets in the last 2-3 years (3 wins, 1 loss, 1 traffic school, 1 still pending) with one court trial where the officer actually showed up, let me offer a limited view on the matter from the defendant's podium:

    1. I sat on quite a few traffic calendars for my cases and as part of preparing for my upcoming cases, and I have never ever seen the judge hassle the cop about reading from their notes. Sadly enough, I have never ever seen a defendant object to the officer blatantly reading from the notes without laying a proper foundation. Then again, I didn't have the presence of mind to object to it during my trial as well.

    DO be prepared to testify without notes if the defendant invokes a rule of court that allows them to take your notes away and 'examine' them.

    2. Good advice, even though I think it's overkill.

    3. As far using bits and pieces of other officers' testimony, just know the laws you're supposed to be enforcing, and make sure you articulate all the elements of the alleged offense in your testimony.

    4. 99.9% of the time, people just set a court date hoping the officer won't show up. Otherwise the defendant will blather on about some random shit that does not even remotely resemble a legally sound defense or, worse yet, dig themselves even deeper by giving self-incriminating testimony.

    Hint: If you get a photo ticket for not stopping during a right turn on red, you're not going to help your case by testifying that you're not sure if you stopped, but you definitely slowed down.

    And they will blather on even more after they pause to catch their breath and the judge asks them if they have anything more to add.

    One time, I saw some lady give a treatise on how radar waves can bounce off of multiple vehicles, forming constructive interference and causing the radar to report excessive speed and calling it 'simple physics'…Nevermind the fact that the radar uses doppler effect OR THE FACT THAT THE OFFICER TESTIFIED EARLIER THAT HE USED A FRIGGIN LIDAR

    All in all, if you don't want the defendant to trip you up, don't write bogus tickets.

    One time I was cited by a motor cop near Pleasanton for 50 in a 35 zone. Some of the juicier bits of the case include:

    -the officer misstated my gender on his deposition.
    -the officer claimed I endangered a childcare center which was closed on that day.
    -the officer also claimed that there are a lot of pedestrians who cross an uncontrolled intersection down the road to shop at a gas station a quarter of a mile away from the said intersection. Yeah, right…

    I was really looking forward to nailing his ass to the wall in court, but he didn't show up. The only question is how many other people simply paid up rather than contest a ticket that is just plain bogus to anyone who knows the law?

    5. I wish I got paid to go to court, but there's something heartwarming about getting an unexpected $400 tax refund from the county.


  4. I am curious as to why one of the specific inclusions of your testimony needs to be that you were in a "marked" vehicle. Is that prerequisite to issuing traffic citations? I have seen several traffic stops by un-marked vehicles here in AZ, but am unsure if any of those resulted in citations (or just warnings).

    Thanks in advance for indulging my stupid curiosity! -Adam

  5. My husband is a traffic cop and his philosophy is that even if the defendant wins, that is still time out of their day(s) and if they hired a lawyer then money out of their pocket as well. So either way it is a win win situation.

  6. @Adam

    Read up on the infamous Red Light Bandit at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Light_Bandit

    This is one of the main reasons why many states (CA included) do not allow unmarked cars for the exclusive purpose of traffic enforcement. That does NOT mean that an officer patrolling in an unmarked car cannot stop a driver after observing a traffic violation as long as the officer's primary duty is anything other than traffic enforcement.

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