24

This article says, "When it's your word against the police officer's [regarding a failure to stop at a stop sign], the person with the badge usually wins." It seems like the officer should have to present at least some kind of evidence that the alleged crime occurred. I could see this being in the form of a video from his or her dash cam. However, if it's his or her word against mine, what prevents him or her from pulling people over to meet some kind of quota?

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    It's a good reason to get your own dash cam. That being said, I've been driving 25 years roughly 20k/yr and I have never been pulled over for something I didn't actually do. My wife did right when the using cell phone while driving laws started and we didn't even own cell phones, but never got a ticket.
    – rtaft
    Jul 9 at 14:42
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    There are so many people he could pull over to meet a quota who actually did violate some rule or another he's got no reason (typically) to pick people out who he just doesn't like or who are unlucky and lie about it in court. There are so many people violating laws against, e.g., texting/phone when driving, rolling stops, unsafe lane changes, driving when a ped. is in the crosswalk (other side of street but non-divided highway), speeding in residential areas, speeding in work zones, turning right after full stop against a sign saying no right turns after full stop, etc etc etc etc etc.
    – davidbak
    Jul 9 at 23:23
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    "what prevents him from pulling people over to meet some kind of quota?" You're worried about guilty until proven innocent... and you end with what reads as an accusation that presumes guilt until the officer is proved innocent (of lying to meet a quota)... Am I the only one to see a conflict of ideas here?
    – WernerCD
    Jul 10 at 20:51
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    @ColleenV Another reason to show up is to plead "guilty with explanation" and hope the judge takes pity on you and reduces the punishment (e.g. doesn't put any points on your license). Jul 11 at 1:42
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    @WernerCD I think the difference is that the officer is not on trial. If he were accused of perverting the course of justice and put on trial then at that point he would also gain the benefit of innocent until proven guilty. Jul 11 at 9:14
49

It seems like the officer should have to present at least some kind of evidence that the alleged crime occurred.

Testimony is evidence. Officers can and do abuse this, but courts tend to give them the benefit of the doubt, so they typically attribute greater weight and credibility to a police officer's testimony than to that of a defendant.

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    Typically, "evidence" is in the form of two independent lines of evidence. This could be an eyewitness to the crime, video evidence, etc. For speeding, it could be logs from the speed gun. For violent crimes, it could be DNA. In any case, a single line of evidence seems highly problematic. Particularly when there are quotas in place. If the officer is a little shy of meeting his quota, why would he not write a few people up for running a stop sign whether they did or not?
    – tlewis3348
    Jul 8 at 17:45
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    @tlewis3348 I agree, but as far as I'm aware there is nothing that elevates "problematic" to "insufficient for conviction" -- especially when it comes to traffic infractions, which aren't even misdemeanors in most states. The main point of this answer is to say that this technically does not violate the presumption of innocence, though I agree that in many cases it does effectively violate that presumption. It's just that getting a court to agree with that is fairly unlikely in most cases.
    – phoog
    Jul 8 at 17:51
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    Your statement makes no sense. If every evidence requires two lines of evidence then those two evidence requires four evidence which means they require 8 which means you need 16, no you need 32 ... actually you would need infinite evidence to admit any ONE evidence. I presume you actually mean "Typically proof requires two independent evidence". There are two kinds of evidence. Things like eyewitness statements (the police officers) are considered direct evidence, typically regarded as strong evidence. Things like DNA evidence is circumstantial evidence legally considered weak
    – slebetman
    Jul 9 at 3:11
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    It could be noted police officers usually take an oath and on that basis are untrusted by the state to enforce laws, and are generally presumed trustworthy by said state. That's why the testimony of a police officer (which is generally strong evidence by itself) will usually prevail over yours absent any other evidence. They don't even need a speed gun, in many jurisdictions they can just eyeball it when you are well over the limit. Jul 9 at 8:32
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    Not all evidence is equal. A police officer's testimony in a traffic case is considered more compelling than defendant's because it is considered professional, objective and (relatively) unmotivated, whereas a defendant's testimony generally is none of those things. You can however overcome this if you have corroborating evidence, such as another eyewitness who will confirm your claim (and personally, I have done this). Jul 9 at 19:05
17

European viewpoint:

"Innocent until proven guilty" relates only to the criminal process.

There is also an "administrative process" where the traffic control pretty much belongs, as well as other matters where the government exerts control, e.g. food quality.

In the administrative process, the inspector's findings are considered true unless a substantial evidence is brought up against them. The burden of the proof lies at the defendant.

This is true at least in:

  • Bulgaria: The law system is (somewhat indirectly) derived from the German one and very similar to other soviet-influenced countries.
  • Germany: There is a) Ordnungswidrigkeit for minor infractions, handled administratively, with the punishment typically being a fine (called Geldbuße) and b) Straftat for crimes handled by courts, with the punishment typically either a fine (called Geldstrafe), or a (possibly suspended) prison sentence. Traffic violations in particular can be either a Ordnungswidrigkeit for minor infractions (wrong parking, moderate speeding) or a Straftat for major infractions (driving under the influence of drugs, driving w/o permit).
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    What country does this relate to? I know that in England traffic laws are enforced through the criminal process.
    – bdsl
    Jul 9 at 9:39
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    Relating to the law matters, England (common law system) is not Europe. Continental Europe is Civil law everywhere.
    – fraxinus
    Jul 9 at 9:43
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    OK, but it might still useful to name a particular country where this applies and say what the "administrative process" is called in that countries system - partly to make it possible to fact-check this answer. Lots of people do wrongly believe that in England traffic law and criminal law are two entirely separate things.
    – bdsl
    Jul 9 at 9:49
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    In particular, the mechanism in Germany is called Strafbefehl, which is when the defendant is automatically found guilty without a process unless they actively defend themselves.
    – Nobody
    Jul 9 at 10:35
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    @fraxinus I think the problem stems from the fact that "Europe" is not a legal jurisdiction. For example, the UK jurisdictions, Ireland, and Cyprus, are all in Europe but use the common law system. Also, "Continental Europe is Civil law everywhere" - note that civil law vs common law (i.e. the system itself) has a different meaning to civil law vs criminal law (i.e. a category of law). A country having a civil law system does not imply that traffic offences cannot be criminal.
    – JBentley
    Jul 9 at 14:19
12

However, if it's his word against mine ...

I don't know the US point of view, but I have read that in Germany the courts evaluate the "evidence" (which includes statements of witnesses) by importance.

If your word is against the word of the police officer, the court will judge the two statements the following way:

  • The police officer is trained to observe situations in the traffic exactly. He is paid to tell the court exactly what he has seen. He has no motivation to tell anything but the truth.
  • The driver was focused on driving the car so it is possible that he didn't see the stop sign. The driver doesn't have a motivation to tell the truth but he has a motivation to say that he observed the stop sign - even if he didn't do it.

... presumed guilty in traffic court

This has neither to do with being presumed guilty, nor with the traffic court:

If somebody stole goods in the supermarket and there is exactly one uninvolved witness who can identify the thief, the court will also believe the uninvolved witness and not the defendant.

In the case of the stop sign, the police officer is the uninvolved witness.

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    The German perspective may indeed be different from the US point of view. The OP suspects that a traffic officer may falsify their testimony in order to meet a quota – that would be their motivation to tell something that is not the truth. I don't know how prevalent quotas are in the US, but they certainly don't exist (officially) in Germany.
    – Schmuddi
    Jul 9 at 9:34
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    @Schmuddi the logic underlying a US court's deference to a police officer's testimony is broadly similar, however, regardless of whether quotas or other factors render US officers more likely to abuse that privileged position.
    – phoog
    Jul 9 at 10:45
  • I might add that theft is different because there is multiple lines of witness possible. There's the presence of the stolen goods, the observation of eyewitness, the absence of a proof of purchase, security camera footage, etc. If a person accuses me of stealing something, and there's no further evidence of me doing that thing, then it would be unjust to convict that person of theft.
    – tlewis3348
    Jul 9 at 13:33
  • @tlewis3348 why would it be unjust? If I see someone steal my bike, why is my testimony not enough for them to be punished? Or perhaps they pull a knife on me? There’s all sorts of things for which there is a lone witness.
    – Tim
    Jul 11 at 10:29
  • @Tim Because if you have no corroborating evidence for your accusation, you could accuse anyone of anything.
    – tlewis3348
    Jul 11 at 10:37
5

You are not presumed guilty. You are accused by an eyewitness (the police officer). In my experience, if the eyewitness does not appear, the case is dismissed. Even then, his word is not beyond doubt, if you can show evidence, you can sometimes win the case. (in my case I was new to the area and a construction sign partially obscured the speed limit sign - I don't know if this would have been sufficient because the officer did not show - case dismissed).

In regards to "his word over mine", if you look at this from a 3rd party perspective, the accused in any court has a much stronger incentive to lie than the police officer so the testimonies are not weighed equally. Also a police officer is trained and is actively watching at the time of the infraction whereas the driver is often paying more attention to other cars (while singing along with Brittany in a falsetto voice).

2

It's an infraction, not a crime. This is Civil Court

There are two separate court systems:

  • Criminal court, with The State as prosecutor, life and liberty in jeopardy and "proof beyond a reasonable doubt".
  • Civil court, with any private party as plaintiff, no risk to life or liberty, and "more likely than not". (51%)

Civil court is for civil disputes - e.g. disputes between parties. "51% more likely than not" is fair because they are "parties of equals" and because jail and death penalty are off the table.

The State doesn't have to prosecute everything criminally. It can choose to step into civil court to resolve any matter it pleases; jail isn't an option, but proof is 51%.

That's exactly what most States have done with traffic infractions (and a huge variety of other petty matters like littering, parking violations, building code violations etc.)

Sometimes you see a hybrid "in-between" sort of court specifically for traffic disputes - but it's the same couplet: Reduce the jeopardy, reduce the proof. This is a matter of sheer necessity: due to the massive volume of traffic citations, the system cannot bear the burden of seating a jury (of whom? People who never sped?) for every speeding ticket.

You can guess what happens with 51% when it's your word vs. a cop's, a presumably neutral observer who had no particular reason to pick on you.

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    In many US states traffic offenses and other "infractions" are really a 3rd category, neither criminal nor strictly civil. However, as other comments have mentioned, in some states all or most traffic offenses are misdemeanors and thus crimes, and in many states some serious traffic offenses are crimes. Jul 9 at 16:50
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    @BenVoigt Okay. Jul 9 at 18:42
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    How is the state a "private party"?
    – tlewis3348
    Jul 9 at 20:48
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    @tlewis3348 How is the state prohibited from being a private party? You're making it sound like states are barred from filing lawsuits and can only pursue legal action by making a matter criminal. That doesn't make any sense, since a state defines what all that stuff even is. They would have no earthly reason to deny themselves the recourse of litigation. Jul 9 at 21:22
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    @tlewis3348 It sounds like you're just nitpicking that a legal "term of art" doesn't quite match its colloquial meaning. Why would you expect this? Jul 11 at 14:59
0

In the case of a traffic stop, there's often no possibility of independent evidence (unless there's dashcam video). If the court doesn't give significant weight to the police officer's testimony, there's hardly any point to the hearing. The driver isn't going to implicate themselves (why would they even have contested the ticket?).

While the officer could be over-ticketing because they're trying to meet a quota, if we routinely dismiss their testimony because of this then the whole system falls apart.

So the process we have is basically the only practical solution. We assume the officer has little reason to lie, while anything the defendant says is self-serving and the court should be suspicious. That doesn't mean it's ignored, but there needs to be good reason to believe that the officer messed up. I recall the episode of "The Andy Griffith Show" where Aunt Bea was ticketed for running a red light; they eventually figured out that at that time of day the sun caused a glare that made it difficult to see the stop light, so it wasn't her fault. Absent exigent circumstances like that, we're stuck with the testimonies of the officer and the defendant, and the court has to weigh their veracities.

If a particular officer is routinely over-ticketing, they'll likely have more of their tickets contested than other officers. I hope that police departments track this and investigate the circumstances.

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    While it's true that many municipalities see traffic fines as a revenue source, I'll be optimistic and view these laws as deterrants. We want to prevent accidents, not wait for them to happen and prosecute due to the harm. And the threat of fines is about the only tool we have.
    – Barmar
    Jul 9 at 14:43
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    I don't think this is the appropriate place for this discussion. If you think your police department is actually ignoring "real crimes" because they're spending too much time ticketing traffic violations, take that up with your local government.
    – Barmar
    Jul 9 at 14:49
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    @CharlesDuffy Racing through a yellow light is legal, since it's really a green light that is very stale. The litmus test is: As long as the "racer's" front bumper crosses the stop line (not to be confused with pedestrian lines) before it turns red, the "racer" may continue across. On the other hand, when the light turns green, your responsibility is to search to ensure the way is clear before entering. The green light/white hand does not absolve you of that. Relying on indignity rather than traffic law may be more fun, but it WILL get you killed. Jul 9 at 16:42
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    @Harper-ReinstateMonica, there are responsibilities on multiple parties -- the above is a very inaccurately one-sided summary. I fully agree with your final line, but the content above it could lead to an inaccurate conclusion that folks "racing the yellow" are behaving legally. At least in both states where I've had formal training, such actions are ticketable as reckless driving (especially if one accelerates into the intersection to try to make it across, which is what I'd argue is a key defining factor of "racing the yellow"). Jul 9 at 16:46
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    So throw the baby out with the bathwater? We shouldn't try to prevent accidents because in extremely rare cases the perpetrator may be deported? Anyway, what is the practical alternative you suggest (other than changing the laws so these aren't crimes/misdemeanors)?
    – Barmar
    Jul 9 at 23:11

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