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Contesting a Ticket via a Trial by Declaration in California

by Willy Mwanza

A ticket in California can be an unwelcome surprise, particularly if you believe it was not correctly issued. Regardless of the nature of the ticket - whether it was for a parking infraction, running a red light, or speeding – it's worthwhile to know your rights and options if you plan to contest the ticket. One appealing method is through a 'Trial by Declaration' (TBD). A TBD is a written procedure that allows you to plead 'not guilty' and present your case in writing without attending court.

A Trial by Declaration, though time-consuming, is an easily navigable process in California that can lead to either complete dismissal of the ticket or a repayment of the bail amount. Equally essential to this trial is the 'trial de novo', a subsequent trial if you’re unsatisfied with the TBD ruling.

Understanding the Trial by Declaration

The California Vehicle Code Section 40902 allows for a Trial by Declaration (TBD), enabling defendants to contest their traffic infractions in writing, instead of appearing in court for a trial. The true allure of a TBD is that it provides judges a different perspective, removed from the potentially intimidating context of a courtroom. More often than not, officers don’t allocate time to respond in writing, thus increasing the likelihood of the case being dismissed.

Your defense via a TBD is essentially your side of the story presented in a logical, clear, and factual way. Evidence like photographs, drawings, or any other supporting material is highly beneficial here. Finally, a TBD provides an opportunity to detail your respect for the law but also contest any perceived wrongful penalization.

Commencing the Process: Requesting a Trial by Declaration

Initiating a TBD starts with 'Request for Trial by Declaration' or 'Form TR-205', which can generally be found on the respective county court website or requested from the court clerk. This form needs to be completed accurately, adhering to the instructions provided. It's essential to ask for a TBD before the due date of the ticket to avoid late penalties.

Once the form is filled, it accompanies your written declaration, detailing your version of the events. Care should be taken to ensure that you stick to the facts and eliminate any irrelevant or inflammatory comments. The form and your letter are then submitted to the court clerk either in person or via mail.

Paying the Bail

Payment of the amount mentioned on the ticket serves as bail and must be paid when the Request for Trial by Declaration is submitted. This might seem counterintuitive—but you must pay the fine before you proceed with a TBD. This ensures that if you do lose the TBD, the court keeps the bail, and there are no additional penalties.

However, if you win, this bail money is refunded. It's a protective measure, ensuring that offenders can’t utilize the TBD as an attempt to stall the procedure or escape the fine. Note that you may request the court to waive bail if financial hardship can be demonstrated.

Writing a Strong Declaration

The crux of your TBD lies in your written declaration, on which your defense against the ticket firmly stands. It's your golden opportunity to present your case, and you must avail it intelligently. Write clearly, concisely, and objectively—maintaining a tone that conveys respect toward the court and the traffic officer involved.

Present a chronological sequence of events, highlighting discrepancies or mistakes that may have been made during the issuance of the ticket. If applicable, include relevant evidence—pictures, diagrams, statements from eyewitnesses—that buttress your claim. This declaration is your stand-in in the courtroom; ensure it makes a compelling case.

Officer’s Declaration

The officer who has issued your ticket also has the opportunity to draft a written statement which provides their account of incidents. Nonetheless, this situation does not commonly occur, due to several potential factors. The officer involved may not have enough time to jot down the response or they might no longer have employment within the specific department, or they may simply overlook the case.

The absence of a response from the officer presents a significant possibility for your citation to be dismissed. It could potentially be dropped based solely on the grounds of not receiving any account from the officer's end. Hence, under such circumstances, the citation may not stand valid.

Upon receipt of all declarations and supporting evidence, the judge will review the case and make a ruling. The court informs you of the decision via mail. The average timeline can be anywhere between 30-90 days, although this varies depending on the county.

Trial De Novo: The Second Chance

In case the ruling is not in your favor, fret not—you have another chance. Within 20 days of the mailing date of the TBD decision notice, you can request a 'Trial De Novo' (new trial). It is an entirely fresh trial which disregards the TBD and provides you with another opportunity to contest the ticket.

Ensure you file the 'Request for New Trial' or 'Form TR-220' promptly within the stipulated time. If you missed the deadline, it may become tough to overturn this ruling.

The preparations for the trial stage are much the same as they were for the TBD regarding evidence. The main difference is that you or your attorney will now physically present your case within a court setting. The same risk of the officer not appearing is valid for the Trial De Novo—if that happens, your ticket might be dismissed purely on that basis.

In a nutshell, a Trial by Declaration is a viable option should you decide to contest a ticket in California. It allows you to make your case without enduring the emotional stress and time commitment of a physical court appearance. Understanding each aspect, from the initiation of the process, writing a persuasive declaration, to the possibility and preparation for a Trial De Novo ensures you are well-equipped to navigate the system at your discretion. Never forget, you are a responsible citizen who knows how to defend your rights in the face of perceived unfair penalization.