Your Word Against the Police
A lot of people decide not to dispute a traffic ticket because they think the police will just be believed in court and what they, as the driver, have to say will be rejected. It’s a legitimate concern. If you think the court will just believe the police, you might think that you can’t succeed in court. We’re here to tell you that there is more to the process, however. You may think it’s a contest of your word against the police but it’s far more complex than that.
The credibility contest
It’s hard to argue that the police don’t get a credibility advantage. An honest, bona fide approach to the evidence would be to consider the police evidence with the same caution and skepticism as any evidence before the court. Still, most reasonable observers would conclude that the police often get a free pass, particularly in the internal government tribunals. In traffic court it may appear this way as well.
There are police officers who you may think will get a credibility advantage but in fact, when it comes time to testify, they are poor witnesses. Some officers have a history of providing low value evidence or may have been observed to make conclusory statements rather than mere statements of observations. In those cases, even if they hold themselves out as a super cop when they issued you the ticket, they have no advantage in court. Some are just poor witnesses.
The standard of proof
The nice thing about traffic court is that the standard of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt. When it comes to assessing evidence before the court, all the considerations come into play about assessing the evidence in light of that standard. The leading applicable case, R. v. W(D), makes clear that if the judge hears the evidence of the accused and if their evidence raises a doubt and is not outright disbelieved, then this satisfies the reasonable doubt standard.
In other words, the court may believe the officer but if the court doesn’t disbelieve you and your evidence would raise a doubt, then you must be acquitted. And of course, there are many other reasons you can be acquitted, but this rule deals head on with the concern about it being a contest about your word vs. the police.
This sounds great, but the application of the rule is where it can fall apart. When it comes to the on-the-ground application of the W(D) standard, the court can simply find some small inconsistency in your evidence to conclude that your evidence is unreliable while giving the police a pass on problems with their evidence. Still, this rule is intended to deal with the concerns about it being a contest about your word vs. the police.
Other aspects of what needs to be proven
Often police officers issue tickets that are not appropriate for the offence or when they give evidence, if the evidence is accepted, it still won’t make out the elements of the offence charged. What we mean by that is the officer will think that the driving facts are conduct prohibited by the particular Motor Vehicle Act offence or obligation they alleged was breached. But the facts may not make out the offence that they allege took place. This is an issue of law applied to a particular set of facts.
There are offences such as Excessive Speeding which have a legislative fall back, however. If the officer fails to establish for the court that the speed was into the excessive range, the evidence may nevertheless make out lower-level speeding. In that case, even if the officer writes the ticket for the wrong offence, you may be found guilty of the lower-level offence.
For different offences there are procedural requirements the police are required to follow when issuing traffic tickets. This commonly comes into play in the operation of speed-measuring devices used to collect evidence for speeding tickets. The important consideration here is that the court doesn’t have a list of what the police need to prove but typically your lawyer gets that evidence out through cross-examination of the police officer. Knowing what the police need to prove is one thing. Getting that factual/legal test before the court and showing the officer failed the test are the goals of a good cross-examination on a traffic ticket.
Most people scour the face of the ticket for errors hoping that, if they can find one, this will provide some sort of technicality defence. Most errors on the face of the ticket can be used in the defence of the allegation at trial, but it is exceptionally rare that it provides an outright defence. To advance a defence that an error on the face of the ticket is meaningful, it still requires a trial and cross examination of the officer to pinpoint the reasons that the officer’s evidence is unreliable.
Succeeding in traffic court
Most of the time success in traffic court is not contingent on your word against the police. The knee-jerk consideration that first come to mind is that there is no point disputing a ticket because the court will simply believe the police officer. But there are legal rules in place, such as the W(D) test, to protect you. As well, most traffic cases are decided on the evidence that comes from the officer. It may be necessary to ask the officer 100 or more specific questions in cross examination, or not a single question of the evidence they provide the court fails to meet a necessary element of the offence.
If you think that you shouldn’t dispute a ticket because you think you can’t succeed in a contest of your word against the police, put that concern aside. Talk to a driving lawyer. You may have a very good defence that does not require that you to set foot in a courtroom.
Did you get a ticket? Call us. We’re the original BC Driving Lawyers and we have been successfully challenging traffic tickets for decades.