Going to Court by Mail

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Court systems continue to develop new ways of streamlining their procedures to reduce their expenses and backlog, and to improve customer service. Last year we noted the rise of telephonic court appearances for self-represented parties in some types of hearings. But “phoning it in” isn’t the only way to avoid a trip to the courthouse. In some areas, it is now possible to contest your traffic ticket by mail.

While telephone hearings are limited to routine motions that don’t require presentation of evidence or sworn testimony, traffic ticket mail contests are the real thing: the determination of guilt or innocence. In California, the leader in this trend – as it was the leader in telephonic appearances – the process is called Trial by Written Declaration. The defendant submits the declaration along with the bail amount for the offense (this is usually the maximum fine amount). The court reviews the declaration, along with any additional evidence such as the arresting officer’s sworn statement, and renders a decision. The defendant is notified of the decision by mail, which can be

  • Not Guilty – along with a refund of the bail money
  • Guilty of a reduced charge or with a reduced fine – along with partial refund of the bail money
  • Guilty as charged – and the court keeps the bail money

No one has to travel to court, time and money are saved, and everyone is happy – unless the decision is Guilty. Perhaps the defendant could have made a better argument in person? No problem! The defendant can then request a new trial – in person – with no more grounds than simple disagreement with the first decision.

The California Judicial Branch has instructions as well as Request for Trial by Written Declaration and Request for New Trial forms available for download.

Most Superior Courts in California have specific forms and procedures for handling trials-by-mail. Alameda County Superior Court’s website has instructions along with downloadable instructions and a request form. Del Norte County Superior Court’s website has similar instructions, with information about sources of the state form and its own local form.

The District of Columbia Department of Motor Vehicles also allows adjudication of traffic tickets by mail, and provides detailed instructions. To make it easier, D.C. does not require payment of the fine or bail when the request is submitted; you only pay if you lose. To make it even easier, D.C. allows you to submit your written statement and have your hearing online, although you still have to mail in any additional evidence. There’s no automatic new trial in person in D.C. if you disagree with the decision; you can appeal to the Traffic Appeals Adjudication Board, but that process is exclusively by mail.

You can also fight your ticket by mail in Hawaii (scroll down to the question “What if I submit a written statement instead of going to court?”). Your written statement does not have to accompanied by a specific form, you don’t pay unless you lose, and you can request a new trial in person if you don’t like the decision.

Adjudications by mail in Oregon are a local option; some courts allow them and some do not. You have to submit the fine amount along with your written statement. Even within a county, the procedure may vary by court; for an example see the very brief Clackamas County instructions (scroll down to “Option 4”). In other counties, the procedure may be more specific; see the Deschutes County instructions, which include downloadable forms to waive your right to a live hearing in court and submit your sworn testimony. CourtReference’s Guide to Oregon Courts – Self Help and Legal Research page has links to these and other courts’ instructions; look for links to traffic information. You can also look for individual courts’ forms on our Forms page.

As in Oregon, availability of mail adjudication in Washington varies by court. Most Washington courts require in-person appearances in contested traffic cases, but many do not; examples are found in Fife Municipal Court, Milton Municipal Court (for each, scroll down the page to “What is a contested hearing by mail?”), Lynnwood Municipal Court, Poulsbo Municipal Court, and Snohomish County District Court. You don’t pay unless you lose, but there is no appeal of a hearing-by-mail in Washington. Washington courts that allow mail contests have their own forms, which can be found at CourtReference.

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