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?
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.
"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).
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.
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).
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.
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.