There are many blogs by lawyers about what to do if you are ticketed for a traffic violation (some by me, as well).  They are useful and have their place.  But some problems are easier to deal with by avoiding them altogether.

The best way to beat a ticket is the same as the best strategy for winning a fight…….avoid it.  Don’t be there when it starts.  Or, as one of my favorite vegetarians once famously advised fire-threatened Philadelphians in 1736,An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”   Preventing fires is better than fighting them, to be sure. That was Benjamin Franklin…..the same guy who though turkeys were possessed of better character than  eagles.  No one is right all the time.

Knowing and following the Vehicle & Traffic Law (VTL) is important.  There are a number of innocuous pitfalls which can be easily avoided with a little vigilance.   In Case 1, my client was stopped for not having a functioning plate lamp over his rear license plate.  That is a violation of VTL 375.2 (a) 4.

The bulb is supposed to be bright enough to make the plate legible for at least 50 feet away.  

The police don’t really care about plate lamps being burned out as a stand alone violation.  They use a dark bulb as a reason to stop a motorist.  They are checking for drunk or impaired drivers.  Stopping a car for a minor violation with the true intent being to look for something more serious is called a “pretext stop”.  The US Supreme Court held a police officer’s underlying intent or motivation is irrelevant for 4th Amendment purposes.  Whren v. US, 517 US 806 (1996).  The New York State Court of Appeals agreed in People v. Robinson, 97 NY 2d 341 (1996).  Pretext stops are legal.

My client was stopped on a brightly lit downtown street.  His plate was visible without a functioning bulb.  There was an odor of alcohol on his breath and he was arrested for DWAI (a lesser version of DWI) as he had a very small amount of alcohol in his system.  As it turns out, he also had a fully functional plate lamp.  He checked it that night and had his mechanic confirm it the next day. The reason for stopping him wasn’t just a pretext; it was contrived.  He was not convicted.

I have yet to see a dashboard sensor which alerts a driver the plate bulb is burnt out.  I have seen dozens of drivers stopped for dark bulbs.  Many of those stops have led to bigger problems such as arrests for DWI and searches of cars both legal and illegal.  An easy preventive measure is to walk around your vehicle before driving at night. Make sure all lights are functional, including the plate lamp.  If you are stopped and told your plate lamp is out, know your conversation is being recorded by the officer.  If you saw the light functioning before you drove, say so.  Your words will be preserved by the body camera footage.

Another preventive measure relates to my last blog (Sweat the Small Stuff, Part 1).  Case 2 involves window tint.  VTL § 375.12 (a) governs what degree of tint you can have on which windows, depending up which type of car you drive.  Here is the link to a quick reference guide:

As with window stickers and hanging air fresheners (see my last blog), cops don’t usually care about tint for tint’s sake.  They see it as an opportunity to go fishing.  You, my friend, are the fish.  Prevention means    not putting any aftermarket tint on your windows, or, making sure the tint allows the requisite percentage of light thru.

But here is the problem…..The police don’t have to be right about the suspicion they used as a reason to stop you.  Their suspicion just has to be reasonable.  If your window tint is legal but dark enough to arouse reasonable suspicion, you will be stopped.  And that is where the trouble starts.  

I have had dozens of cases in which clients have been stopped and ticketed for too much tint.  They thought it must be a legal tint or the tint shop would not have sold it to them.  They were wrong.  Nix the tint.

Sometimes you get lucky.  It is the right day.  You get the right cop in the right mood.  In Case 3, my client was speeding….81 in a 55 zone.  It was Thanksgiving morning.  There was no traffic.  Betty Boop had to get to the yoga studio to teach a class.   Teaching yoga was the one thing that inspired her to fear being late.  

       After Betty was stopped, she explained to the cop where she was headed….her annual Thanksgiving Day yoga class.  He was understanding.  He noted the absence of traffic on the long, straight stretch of road.  He saw her record and noted it had no moving violations.  He explained to Betty it would be a shame to write her speeding ticket on Thanksgiving morning.  Then he said, “Maybe you weren’t wearing your seat belt?” 

Betty Boop, in full on defense mood,  thought the officer was trying to pile it on…..a speeding ticket and a seat belt violation.  With conviction she replied, “Yes.  I am sure.  I was wearing my seat belt!”.

        The officer tried again.  “Are you sure?  Because I would hate to write you a speeding ticket on Thanksgiving.”  Fear is a great inhibitor of intelligence, so Betty doubled down.  She was determined not to make a bad situation worse.  She insisted she had been wearing her seat belt. 

      There was even a third round.  Finally, the cop gave up, said “OK” and headed back to his car to write the speeding ticket.  At that instant, the proverbial cartoon light bulb went off over Betty’s head.  She called out…. “ No, wait…..I might not have been wearing my seat belt!”

      After a few minutes, the officer came back with a ticket for “No Seat Belt”, a zero point violation.  If he had written Betty for speeding, the ticket would have been a moving violation for 6 points…..more than halfway to the 11 points needed for DMV to suspend a license. 

The moral of Case 3 is: “Know how to take the hint.”  Any job dealing with the public can be tough, and police work is no exception.  Almost 80% of human communication is non-verbal.  Then there are the more obvious verbal hints.  Don’t shut down.  Pay attention.  Take the hint and take the break that is offered.

        The best legal advice I could give Betty was to plead guilty to the seat belt charge.  To try to get it dismissed would have been akin to biting the hand which bore a gift.  Bad form and dangerous.  It wasn’t too late for the officer to write a speeding ticket.

Prevention in this case meant paying attention to the clues and knowing how to accept a break.  Betty got it in the nick of time.

Prevention means adhering to the sage wisdom my teacher, Massad Ayoob, often states:  “Anticipate the threat and have a proven counter in place”.  It works in defensive tactics and in works behind the wheel.