By Tristan Smith.
We all like to think that we’re good drivers, but despite our best intentions, traffic tickets happen. If you’ve received a moving violation or DWI in NY, how you handle your ticket now could impact your defense later, especially if you are sued in the future.
McCabe & Mack LLP associate Tristan Smith answers your questions and explains when you need to consult and/or retain an attorney to defend you personally.
A. There is not a clear-cut answer to this question – the short answer is, “it depends.” You can be issued a ticket for many violations of the Vehicle and Traffic Law, and they can fall into the categories of traffic infractions, misdemeanors, or felonies, so you will want to understand the basics. Let me explain a few common situations that you should consider.
Speeding, running a red light or a stop sign, texting, following too closely (tailgating), and other seemingly “minor” infractions. Do not underestimate the seriousness of a traffic citation. A conviction will add points to your license, which will increase your insurance rates. If you already have points on your license, additional points can put you in jeopardy of losing your license. No matter how trivial you think your ticket may be, it is in your best interest to consult with an experienced attorney who can review your situation and advise you on how to proceed.
Accidents. If you’ve been in an accident, your auto insurance carrier will appoint an attorney to represent you in any personal injury case that may arise from your accident. If you are sued before there is a disposition to your traffic ticket in Court, let your assigned attorney know about the ticket immediately. Even if you haven’t been sued yet, keep in mind that how you plead to a ticket can significantly impact your attorney’s ability to defend you later in litigation.
Here’s an example. Two cars collide in a four-way intersection controlled by traffic lights. Let’s say you’ve been issued a ticket for running a red light, and let’s also imagine there was a minor accident in the intersection. It appears that no one was hurt, and you think you may have had a green light, but you aren’t sure. Figuring you can’t win in court, and figuring there was an accident and you must have some blame because the officer wrote you a ticket, you go ahead and plead guilty, pay the fine, and accept the points on your license. Later on, you’re sued for personal injuries.
However responsible and well-intentioned you may be, your ticket strategy could come back to haunt you months or even a couple of years later, should the other party in the accident develop medical problems that were not evident at the time of the accident. Since you’ve already pled guilty to the ticket, you’ve undermined your attorneys’ argument that the other driver had the red light. However, if your ticket had been negotiated to a lesser charge, then your attorney has a stronger chance of arguing that the other driver ran the red light – there may well be other facts that support your initial suspicion that your light was green.
Compensatory vs. Punitive Damages. Know that your auto insurance policy will pay for compensatory damages that may be proved by the person suing you (which can include past and future pain and suffering for injuries, lost earnings, medical bills and other economic losses).
However, most insurance companies typically will not cover punitive damages. These are often thought of as “punishment” damages, awarded when someone is determined to have engaged in such outrageous conduct as to warrant them paying damages out of their own pocket. It is meant to deter that person from acting in such a manner again. This is often seen when the person is charged with a DWI-alcohol, DWI-drug and possibly DWAI. How you plead to these tickets can end up costing you significant money down the road should punitive damages be awarded against you.
If you’ve been charged with driving while intoxicated (DWI), driving while ability impaired (DWAI) or anything related to alcohol or drugs, then you absolutely must have an attorney to represent you, as you could be facing felony charges (depending on your circumstances). If you cannot afford an attorney, then a public defender will be assigned to you. Furthermore, if the DWI or DWAI resulted in an accident where someone was hurt, a jury could punish you by awarding the injured party significant punitive damages.
A. Yes, in general, you will want to consult with an attorney experienced in traffic and criminal law to determine the seriousness of your situation and the appropriate next steps. You could lose your license, and you could be facing jail time. Your attorney can help you understand potential future risks and personal exposure in any personal injury litigation as well. It is almost always better to consult with an attorney right away on the specifics of your situation than to hastily respond without fully understanding the ramifications of your actions. And always let your appointed attorney know what’s going on.
If you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to me personally at 845-486-6881 or by email.
Tristan Smith, an associate with McCabe & Mack LLP, is a graduate of Dickinson College and Pace University School of Law who specializes in insurance defense litigation, plaintiff personal injury, arbitrations, and appeals. Previously, Tristan worked as a trial attorney handling personal injury defense matters through to jury verdict, and in construction litigation. In the community, he serves as President of the Fishkill Rotary Club. Tristan lives in Hopewell Junction with his wife and children. In his spare time, he enjoys rowing with the Hudson River Rowing Association’s crew team, spending time with his family, and biking.