Maryland has a highly traveled stretch of I-95, as well as other busy highways connecting the major metropolitan areas of the East. After many hours of Maryland District Court practice, I’ve become convinced that Maryland’s State Troopers and Transportation Authority Police provide extremely thorough traffic enforcement along these busy corridors. The result is that many out-of-state motorists leave Maryland with tickets for moving violations. Most of them don’t know how to handle these tickets. Many will simply plead guilty by mailing in payments for their tickets, and thereby bring upon themselves insurance increases and other negative consequences. Others will spend money and time to drive hundreds of miles to appear in court to plead guilty with an explanation. This post is meant to offer some general information about how best to handle minor tickets in Maryland.
Maryland traffic tickets require action within 30 days
I am often asked by out-of-state drivers whether or not they must appear in court for Maryland traffic tickets. The answer to this question may surprise you. Before I give that answer, however, I need to specify that the kinds of Maryland traffic tickets I’m talking about in this post are speeding tickets, red light tickets, and citations for minor traffic violations. These are moving violations that carry fines and points –but not jail time. That’s a critical distinction. This post does not concern serious, incarcerable traffic cases such as DUI, Leaving the Scene of an Accident, Fleeing and Eluding the Police, Driving While Suspended or Revoked, or similar. These cases are what the courts call “must-appear” cases. If charged with one of these serious offenses, you can’t simply pay a fine by mail –you must appear in court.
Under Maryland law, drivers have 30 days during which they need to either pay their fines or request a hearing. See my earlier post “Fight Traffic Tickets in Maryland” here for details concerning the driver’s options after receiving a ticket. When a driver who received a Maryland traffic ticket makes a timely request for a trial or a waiver hearing, he will receive a court date in the mail, usually within a few weeks of mailing in their request. The court date may come as soon as a few weeks from when the notice is sent or may be as far away as a few months from when the notice was sent. The timing varies tremendously from county to county. Once a driver asks for a trial date he is expected to appear in court or to pay the fine. This is very important. Once a ticketed driver requests a date, he must appear in court. Failing to appear in court can trigger a license suspension and can result in additional charges and penalties.
What does it mean to “appear” in court for a Maryland traffic ticket?
Section 26-204 of the Maryland Transportation Article specifies that the appearance requirement may be satisfied in one of three different ways:
(i) Appearance in person;
(ii) Appearance by counsel; or
(iii) Payment of the fine for a particular offense, if (there is a fine) provided for in the citation for that offense. (The words in parentheses are mine.)
The first and third options are self-explanatory. The second option provided in the code needs some explaining, however. According to the code, a driver who receives a Maryland traffic ticket may “appear” in Maryland traffic court “by counsel.” This means that the appearance requirement can be satisfied by having a defense attorney go to court in the driver’s place.
In court, the attorney who appears on behalf of a driver who is not present is free to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. If the attorney enters a guilty plea then he can provide an explanation for why the driver violated the law and ask the judge for a reduction or a lighter sentence (including probation before judgment, which carries no fine and no points!). If he enters a plea of not guilty, then he may cross-examine the officer who issued the ticket and argue to the court that the state’s case is insufficient to justify a conviction. The only thing that the driver gives up by not physically appearing in court is the opportunity to testify in support of his defense.
Appearance by counsel
Please allow me to repeat what’s above: a driver who receives a Maryland traffic ticket may have an attorney appear in court in his place. If a ticketed driver hires an attorney then he need not go to court.
When should an out-of-state driver hire an attorney to appear in court in his place? Generally, the driver should hire an attorney when the attorney’s fee is less than the cost of the fine plus any additional costs or penalties that may be incurred as a result of the guilty finding. With that said, anyone who drives for a living would be well advised to consider hiring counsel for a traffic case. The same goes for anyone who is already carrying points on his driver’s license due to convictions for moving violations. When calculating the cost of defending a ticket, the out-of-state driver should also consider the cost and value of the time that it takes to return to the jurisdiction in which he received the ticket. In general, out-of-state drivers often do very well by sending a lawyer to court in their place.
Matthew Baum is a defense attorney with offices in Baltimore, Catonsville, and Columbia Maryland. He represents drivers charged with both serious and non-serious traffic offenses. Whether you’re facing a DUI or a simple speeding ticket, you’re invited to call for a free case evaluation. Baum Law Offices can be reached at (410) 929-3435. Traffic consultations are free, confidential, and private.