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I rear-ended someone and received a "failure to maintain safe distance" citation. I don't believe I'm at fault and am considering challenging it in court. I don't want to get an attorney or deal with any of that, so I'm partially counting on the other guy not showing up. At the scene of the accident, the officer told me that if the other guy does not show when subpoenaed that it would be "a no-go". Am I correct in interpreting this to mean that the ticket will be dropped?

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Not necessarily. Your own statements and the statements of the officer would be legally sufficient to convict you.

Also, your statement that you don't believe you are at fault is strongly at odds with a widely held interpretation of the traffic laws (not stated in the formal language of these statutes). The prevailing interpretation of the traffic laws is that you are always at fault if you rear end someone because you failed to maintain a safe distance, pretty much as a matter of strict liability and regardless of the circumstances, because a safe distance is almost by definition a distance that it is possible for you to come to a full stop from if the care in front of you suddenly comes to a stop for any reason. The only situation I can imagine where there wouldn't be liability for rear ending someone would be if you were at rest behind them at a stop light and they actively backed up into you.

In practice, almost any judge and almost any jury, would convict you of failure to maintain a safe distance if you rear ended someone absent the most extraordinary of circumstances. I honestly don't know any lawyer or likely potential juror who wouldn't convict you under these circumstances with only the testimony of the police officer and your own testimony (which you would have to offer to have any shot at avoiding a conviction) to establish that you did indeed rear end someone.

Police are allowed to lie to suspects of crimes, and often simply do not have an accurate understanding of how the legal system works. So, you are not entitled to rely on a statement made by a police officer.

Of course, it is also certainly possible that his statement is consistent with local practice in your neighborhood traffic court. So, showing up to contest the charge might still make sense, and it wouldn't be uncommon to receive a plea bargain with fewer points against your license, just for showing up to court.

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    My brother was once driving in the right-most lane of a 4-lane city street and someone in the next lane over changed lanes directly in front of him under heavy braking to make a right turn into a parking lot. My brother rear ended him because he had no time to react. Fortunately there were other witnesses and the other driver was found at fault. – James Dec 7 '16 at 20:43
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    Another common situation is that a car is rear ended because they pull into traffic when there is not sufficient room (failure to yield). – James Dec 7 '16 at 20:47
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    @James Certainly there are very exceptional circumstances where the other driver could be at fault, but they are rare, and in the land of traffic laws unlike tort law, it wouldn't be unusual to cite both drivers rather than just one or the other. Both can be in violation of traffic laws even if one is more at fault than the other. Your second scenario might be such a case. Likewise "careless driving" can cover a multitude of marginal cases. – ohwilleke Dec 7 '16 at 21:34
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The "state" is the party that "presses charges" for a traffic violation (and in fact for all crimes). For summary offenses it is sometimes the citing police officer who represents the state in court. Therefore, the police officer can use his discretion to dismiss the charges before trial, or plea bargain with you for lesser charges. Also, you can move the court for the charges to be dismissed if the officer (who is the plaintiff) misses the court hearing.

In the case of a rear-end collision, you might face a separate civil claim from the victim, or his insurer. Again, if that goes to trial, and the plaintiff fails to show up, the court may be moved to dismiss the case.

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    Practice differs from state to state. Most states would have a junior attorney in the District Attorney's office handle prosecution of a traffic violation with the officer present merely as a witness. Only a minority of jurisdictions would allow the police officer himself to dismiss charges or plea bargain. But, it would still be true that it is the "state" that presses charges and would exercise discretion as to whether charges are dismissed or compromised. – ohwilleke Dec 7 '16 at 18:23
  • @ohwilleke - I needed a reminder of how odd Pennsylvania is! I just changed "usually" to "sometimes...." – feetwet Dec 7 '16 at 18:26
  • @ohwilleke: Yes, it's similar in Germany. For minor violations (Ordnungswidrigkeit), police officers have discretion of whether to issue a citation or not, but once the citation has been issued, the rest is in the hands of the district attorney or the court. – sleske Dec 8 '16 at 8:28

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