That’s the ticket

Paying a fine just to get the case over with can cost you your CDL. Consider getting an attorney’s help to reduce the charge or dismiss it altogether.

You have two choices after receiving a ticket for any infraction, be it speeding, a log book mistake, an overweight notice or a broken taillight. You can pay the fine and try to put the ordeal behind you, or you can obtain legal assistance and fight the ticket.

Most owner-operators choose the former. Harold Shank of Scranton, Pa., received a log book citation more than 15 years ago, paid the fine and moved on. “Stay legal, and you won’t get it,” Shank says of a citation. “If you stay within five miles of the law, they [police] won’t bother you.”

Paying the fine is not always the best step to take, however, especially as regulations get tougher, says Jim Klepper of Drivers Legal Plan. If you pay a fine for a speeding ticket in Oshkosh, Wis., for example, your home state of Georgia could suspend your license once the DMV receives word of the incident.

“If you receive a ticket, please, fight it,” says Klepper, whose firm has had many clients who decided to pay a fine and ended up unwittingly losing their licenses. At least take action to try to have the citation reduced to a lesser offense, he adds. “A traffic citation is an officer’s opinion that you violated the law. It’s up to a judge or jury to determine whether or not you did. A traffic citation is nothing until it becomes a conviction.”

Law firms can get face time or phone time with a prosecutor’s office to help fight or lower the penalty of a ticket. “Simply making contact is half the battle,” Klepper says. This way tickets can be talked down, especially in cases where the penalty in one state greatly differs from another.

If you don’t already have an attorney, there are law services and legal referral services that specialize in trucking. Drivers Legal Plan and American Truckers Legal Association are examples of firms that offer full legal services for truck drivers for a price and usually a membership fee. ATLA also offers counsel in non-trucking matters, such as divorce.

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Services that offer only referrals are out there, as well. The National Traffic Attorney Network provides referrals free of charge. At Ticket Defense Services, based in Marietta, Ga., owner Stephanie Reaves says 99 percent of her clients are truck drivers. She has a network of 1,400 attorneys in the lower 48, each well-versed in CDL law.

“We try and get our cases dismissed or substantially reduced,” Reaves says. When a client calls with a case, a fee will be quoted, the average being $350 for speeding, lane violation, log book violation or the like, she says. “The fee depends on what court it is in, what the charge is, and how much we have to pay the attorney,” she says. “If it’s a more serious charge, such as a DWI or accident, then it, of course, will be more.” There is no initiation fee or membership fee.

For a weekly fee of $2.98 (about $155 per year), Drivers Legal Plan will remain on retainer. Actually fighting a ticket costs $100 per ticket over the retainer. There’s also a $250 charge for legal counsel in the event of an accident that involves no death or major injury. “You can put 376 nuns in the hospital, and we’ll still defend you for your 250 bucks, but if one of them loses a limb, it’s a whole new ballgame,” Klepper says.

Without a prepaid plan, legal defense can be far more expensive. Depending on court costs and the nature of the case, simply retaining a lawyer after a ticket is issued could cost $500 or more, Klepper says.

With ATLA, attorney’s fees for ticket cases come at a discount after the membership fee of $38.50 per month, plus an initial $35 enrollment fee. (If you join the company only after receiving a ticket, an eight-month prepaid membership of $308 is required.)

Tickets handled by ATLA and Drivers Legal Plan run the gamut from parking to speeding to drunk driving – even imbibing on your lawnmower, according to the companies. And, because of Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration law, a truck driver must worry not only about the tickets he receives in the truck, but also any moving or non-moving citations in any vehicle, including a personal car or boat. Federal law requires that any traffic conviction a CDL holder receives be reported to his or her home state DMV.

“If you are innocent, we fight all cases,” the ATLA website says. “If you are guilty, we fight all large fines.” Reaves says her business wins more than 95 percent of cases it takes on, but “if we know we can’t win in a court, we won’t take it.”

Nor will Klepper’s staff personally fly out to Southington, Conn., to fight a ticket you receive there. Rather, Drivers Legal Plan will handle much of the prep work on the case from its home base in Oklahoma City, then – if necessary – forward the case to a local attorney. In most cases, the Drivers Legal Plan fee still pays for the outsourced attorney and any follow-up work, such as ensuring no clerical errors occur that could endanger your license after the case is dismissed or settled.

If you are ordered by the court to pay restitution or the legal fees of the other party in an accident, that comes out of your pocket or your insurer’s, not the firm or attorney you hired.

Tipping Points
The process of ticketing and penalties can be confusing because laws vary from state to state.

If you’re pulled over and receive a ticket in Virginia, but have an Alabama-issued CDL, Alabama law applies to the citation and any resulting penalty. Why? According to Jim Klepper, owner of Drivers Legal Plan, the state that issues the license owns it and therefore has the right to revoke it at any time for certain traffic convictions, failure to pay taxes or failure to pay child support. “It doesn’t matter where you receive the conviction, it matters where your license is. It’s like a credit card – if it’s abused they can take it back.”

To further complicate matters, offenses and penalties vary widely in different states, as does the point system to lose your license. For instance, an improper U-turn in your car under Virginia law rates 3 points, whereas in Missouri, it’s 2 points. Excessive speeding will rake up 5 points in Alabama, but only 3 points in Missouri (or 2 under county or municipal ordinances).

The number of points to have your license suspended or revoked also differs. In Alabama, 12 to 14 points in a two-year period equals a 60-day license suspension; as the number of points rises, so do the days the license is revoked. Twenty-four-plus points results in a year-long suspension for Alabama license holders. In Missouri, it’s less strict: 8 or more points within 18 months results in a 30-day suspension of driving rights. Higher point numbers equal higher suspension or revocation periods.

Keep in mind that penalties could be harsher if the offense occurs behind the wheel of a big rig. If you pass a Pennsylvania scale in your big rig, the offense earns a fine under that state’s law. But, if you have a Georgia license, your Georgia CDL will be revoked if convicted under its own law. Also, remember that any crimes – property damage or a death – resulting from a traffic violation bring on a new set of problems. Kill a four-wheeler in Virginia, and license demerits from your home state of Alabama will be the least of your problems.

A helpful website to sort through the differing states: Once there, click on “Tickets & Driving Schools” at the top and go to the U.S. map to check individual states. Also, visit the site of your state’s DMV for more information.

Don’t escalate a simple stop
If you’re pulled over, justly or through no apparent fault of your own, your response can make a big difference in what the officer does. The following tips are provided by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Association and Richard Patterson, a former trucker turned police officer now working in Columbus, Ga.

Don’t panic. Calmly and safely pull over to the right side of the road.

Behave – and smile. Many cruisers now are equipped with audio and video equipment that records all stops.

Stay inside. Do not get out of your truck unless requested by the officer. Keep your hands in clear view. Sudden movements could be perceived as threats.

Be respectful. Refer to the officer as “officer,” “sir” or “ma’am.” Objections, profanity or unruly behavior could turn a verbal warning into a surefire ticket, Patterson says. If you’re really volatile, you could get arrested. Also, “Don’t offer a line,” Patterson says. Troopers already have heard every excuse in the book.

No bribes. Never offer gifts or services to a law officer. This could result in serious penalties to you and your business.

Fight it