This essay originally appeared at BreakingModern.com:
There once was a time during the 1980s when you could find a parking ticket on your windshield, crumple it up and drive off as if it had never existed. Nothing would happen. Usually. It was worth the risk.
But that time is no more.
I am often asked, to my considerable surprise, by seemingly intelligent people — people who don’t eat their own boogers, people who are capable of holding gainful employment — whether they can blow off and get away with a ticket.
My answer? NO! You cannot!
There are three relatively recent reforms in how municipalities handle petty offenses which make ignoring a parking or desk-appearance ticket (more on this later) a Bad Idea. They include rapidly escalating costs (for example, $75 if you pay within 10 days, $120 within 20 days, $200 within 30, and so on). There now are computer-linked “reciprocity” systems between cities and states (if you get a ticket while driving a rental car in California, they’ll know it was you — and you get slammed with a fine and points on your license back home in Texas). And they also include computer-issued arrest warrants if you fail to pay or appear in court.
You won’t even know they’re looking for you until a cop stops you for something else down the road and runs your ID. Then it’s all over. And it gets worse …
Beer, Bench Warrant and Busted!
“A single beer put Patrick Lamson-Hall behind bars for 27 hours,” reported The New York Daily News. “The New York University grad student was slapped with a summons and a court date for drinking a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon on a West Village stoop.”
Turns out the 25-year-old Oregon native forgot about both until a pair of cops stopped him — it was months later — for riding his bike on a Brooklyn sidewalk. Within minutes, Lamson-Hall was placed in handcuffs, tossed into a squad car and taken to the 79th Precinct in Bedford-Stuyvesant. He was busted on a bench warrant over his failure to appear in court.
“I assumed they’d have me pay a ticket for the open container,’ said Lamson-Hall afterward. ‘It didn’t occur to me that I was going to spend the night in jail.’”
Lamson-Hall’s experience is hardly rare. One million New Yorkers — that’s one out of eight city residents — have outstanding warrants for similar “desk-appearance tickets” for offenses like littering or failing to clean their dog’s poo. The vast majority probably have no idea the cops are looking for them.
“Even if you feel that you were in the right, even if you feel that the summons is ridiculous, you need to come to court to resolve it because there are real consequences if you don’t,” says David Bookstaver, a spokesman for New York’s court system. Which brings us to:
The Opposite of Bliss
A parking ticket, a moving violation like a speeding ticket or a desk-appearance ticket for a petty crime (like, soon in New York City, for smoking pot on the street), make sure you make that ticket a top priority in your life.
Ignoring tickets has quite literally ruined countless lives. Some people have even lost their cars and become homeless as a result.
Like in the movie The Terminator, the justice system will not stop, ever, until you pay, show up, or get exonerated.
Put that ticket on your fridge. Read it carefully. Deal with it first thing.
Do You Need to Show Up? Probably, Yeah
There are two kinds of tickets: those that require you to show up in court and those that can be mailed in. Generally, bigger offenses, like driving 20 mph or faster above the speed limit, do require a court appearance. Minor ones, not so much. So read your ticket carefully to see if you need to show up.
If you have a scheduled court date, but can’t make it, you can usually have the date postponed. Call the court or check their website to learn the procedure for requesting a delay, or “continuance.” Living far away isn’t an excuse not to attend. I once had to fly from New York to central Nevada to attend to a speeding violation. This sucked. But it was what it was.
Before we continue with what to do when you get a ticket, however, let’s go back to something you should know before you get one:
Rule Zero: Shut Up! This Cop is Not Your Friend
Citizens and residents of the United States — and tourists, too— have the right not to incriminate themselves. When a cop confronts or pulls you over, he or she is trained to try to get you to incriminate yourself. When a policeman asks: “Do you know how fast you were going?” or “Do you know why I pulled you over?” he or she wants you to admit you were speeding or whatever.
The authorities will use your casual comments and answers in court if you decide to challenge your ticket.
So say nothing. The truth is, you don’t even know why you were stopped. How could you? You don’t know how fast you were going. Speedometers aren’t precise; you can’t read the officer’s mind. Shut up. Use non-committal answers, like “I see.” If asked how fast you think you were going, feel free to claim you were going the legal limit. It’s not even illegal to lie to a cop in this situation and it sure can’t hurt.
Be polite. Keep your interior lights on and your hands on the wheel to avoid freaking out the officer. There’s no point arguing. If the cop asks you whether he or she may “just take a look” inside your vehicle, your answer should always, always be no.
Even if your car is clean, there is no advantage — none, nada — to cooperating.
Be nice. Sometimes that makes all the difference.
Okay, as you were:
Should You Just Pay the Fine?
It’s tempting to send in your check and be done with it. Assuming you pay on time, the court will be satisfied. Regardless, if you decide to do this, be careful. I once got arrested on a desk warrant after Long Island Expressway police failed to credit me for payment for a speeding violation. Now I carry copies of my canceled checks in the glove compartment along with my auto registration! Live and learn.
Parking tickets should be paid promptly in order to avoid escalating fines or even nastier sanctions such as getting your car towed away or clamped by “the Denver boot.” Parking fines are typically relatively low, so it may not be worth it to take time off from your job or to hire a lawyer to try to get them reduced or thrown out.
What if You Really Are Innocent?
Well, that’s an exception. It happens. I got a parking ticket once in Washington, D.C. Neither I nor my car were even there at the time, however. I appealed by mail, presenting proof I was in New York that day and that the model of car wasn’t mine. (The traffic agent probably miswrote the license plate number.) But whatever. I won.
Why You Going to Court is Your Best Chance of Getting Off
If you’ve got several previous tickets and the time to spare, you can get real money knocked off by dressing decently and spending an hour or two in court. I recently got tickets totaling $240 for parking down to $100 just by showing up and explaining that I was confused by new parking regulations.
If you can afford it, moving violations should always be challenged in court, ideally by hiring a lawyer who specializes in traffic tickets in the relevant municipality. Mail appeals tend to be less successful. That’s because the days of getting a speeding ticket, paying it off and forgetting about it are long gone.
Worse, most states now have quietly passed draconian penalties for moving violations i.e. New York State’s “Driver Responsibility Assessment Law.” What this means is that you don’t just pay the fine listed on the ticket. Instead, you pay hundreds of dollars more, even if your license is from another state!
In Virginia, perhaps the most notorious state for this in the Union, speeding is often charged as “reckless driving,” punishable by a year in prison and a $2,500 fine, not to mention a criminal record that’ll follow you mercilessly for the rest of your miserable life.
And then the extra bill arrives in the mail, often months after you plead guilty.
It Doesn’t Take Much to Get Your License Suspended. Get a Lawyer
These days, it doesn’t take much to get your license suspended. In New York, for example, a speeding violation of 20 mph or higher over the limit — say, 76 in a 55 — gets you six points on your license. If you get a second six-point violation within 18 months, they take away your driving privileges. And some auto insurers will jack up your premiums to reflect your need for speed.
In the long run, a lawyer will be cheaper than trusting your fate to the tender mercies of the judiciary.
Most lawyers will charge you less to represent you than you’d pay in fines in the aggregate. You won’t have to show up in court, which means saved personal days.
How can a lawyer help you after you’ve been nabbed with a ticket for something you actually are guilty of? Easy. Lawyers use several tricks to reduce your exposure. They may negotiate your ticket down to a minor offense, like a parking violation, that carries a lesser fine and/or no points. They might schedule your court hearing for a time when your police officer is on vacation, ensuring your case gets thrown out. (That trick, a relic from the old days, still works. Waiting for the cop to not appear in court.)
Or they repeatedly plead for a continuance until the 18-month period when you’re just one ticket away from suspension passes (the clock starts ticking on the day of the alleged offense).
Can’t Afford a Lawyer? How to Act Like One …
If you can’t afford a lawyer — I advise you to beg, steal or borrow to pay one, but anyway — use the lawyerly trick of delaying your court date as long as possible. After your delays run out, show up in court yourself; some judges will reward your deference.
Ask if you can take traffic school to get your points eliminated.
And for God’s sake, drive cautiously. Don’t get another ticket until the passage of 18 months erases the points on your driving record.
Similarly, a desk-appearance ticket is a serious matter. If you’re found guilty, you could wind up with a misdemeanor — yes, a real criminal record! Again, if you have the money, hire a lawyer to work his or her magic. If you’re broke, show up. If you lose, pay right away.
What Happens if You Don’t Pay?
This is not an option. Stop thinking like that! You are going to pay. The only question is when — now or later — and how much — a little or a lot.
Pay later, and you will pay a lot.
This is NOT one of those happy aspects of life that rewards procrastination.
If your failure to appear in court results in your arrest, you could be in for a singularly unpleasant experience, one that could even cost you your job or your life. A former roommate of mine got busted buying a small quantity of pot from an undercover narcotics agent in lower Manhattan. It was noon; he was at lunch. When he wasn’t back at his desk at 1 p.m., his boss was worried. When he didn’t show up for three days (long waits to be processed through the system aren’t rare, especially when there’s a holiday), he became angry — and he fired him.
Then there’s the public beer/bike on the sidewalk guy I mentioned up top. He spent a night in jail — one night in a solitary jail cell with no windows, no water and a broken toilet. Cops refused to let him make a phone call before vanishing for hours.
You Probably Won’t Get Beaten Up in Lock-Up, But …
Yeah. I know. The Constitution is there to protect you. But in the real world, the Constitution often ends the second handcuffs hit your wrists. You’re probably not going to get raped or beaten in the lock-up, but if you need your meds to stay healthy — an asthma inhaler, say — you’re in deep doo doo if they throw you in jail. Standard procedure is to confiscate your drugs and ignore you when you complain.
This can kill people. Not that all authorities care. It’s procedure, like I said.
Even if the state doesn’t get all medieval on you, fines for non-payment are going to pile up exponentially. And thanks to sophisticated license-plate scanning machines that collect hundreds of millions of images per year for collection into a national database out of George Orwell’s worst nightmares, it’s only a matter of time before you get stopped and arrested … or have your car confiscated.
It ain’t fair. It ain’t right. But when you get a ticket, the last thing you want to do is ignore it.