Who Is “At Fault” For a Collision – The Importance of Tickets

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Usually when a wreck occurs, the police will be called to the scene of the wreck to investigate.  The officers will take statements from any witnesses, and document the weather and traffic conditions in an accident report.  In cases where the evidence suggests that a rule of the road may have been violated, officers may even issue a ticket. While some might expect a ticket to settle the issue of who was at fault for a wreck, that is not necessarily the case.  Further, how the ticket is dealt with can have a major impact at trial is any claims are brought as a result of the wreck.

Officer’s Opinions on Fault Aren’t Admissible

In a civil trial of a claim arising from a wreck, the jury is usually being asked to make the same decision an officer makes when issuing a ticket – who is at fault?  Because this is the jury’s question to answer at trial, usually the officer’s decision and the rationale behind it are not admissible evidence.   This is done in the interest of fairness, because telling the jury about how the officer evaluated the evidence could unduly influence their own evaluation of the evidence.  While the officer’s decisions may not be admissible, the fact that someone was ticketed still may be admissible depending on what happens with the ticket in traffic court.

Three Potential Pleas

When a person goes to court for a traffic ticket, there are three different pleas that can be entered in response to a given charge:  “Guilty”, “Not Guilty” or “No Contest (Nolo Contendere).”   The plea you choose will determine whether a jury ever hears about the traffic ticket.

“Guilty” Pleas 

This is the easiest plea to enter, because just paying the fine to avoid  going to Court is a “guilty” plea under Georgia law.   You can also go to traffic court enter a “guilty” plea when your case is called.  Either of those steps is held to be an “admission against interest” of the person entering that plea.  While a person who has taken either step is allowed to try to explain that it was done just to avoid inconvenience, and was not really an admission, the jury will still decide fault, and will obviously know about the ticket and its disposition.

“Not guilty” Pleas

Everyone has the right to plead “Not guilty” to the charges, and to require the police to prove the allegations against them.   A “Not Guilty” plea is not admissible in a subsequent civil trial related to the same collision. Even if the traffic judge finds the ticket was valid, and finds the driver guilty as charged, the jury will not be told about the charges or the Judge’s finding.

“No Contest” or “Nolo Contendere

Depending on the driver’s history and the Judge’s discretion the traffic court may allow a “No Contest” plea.  A “No Contest” plea is similar to a guilty plea, in that a fine may still be assessed, but the plea is not treated as an admission of guilt.   Because it is not an admission against interest,  the jury in a subsequent civil trial cannot be told about the ticket or the plea.

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