Many drivers have been in that situation where they get a speeding ticket, and meekly paying the fine is just not an option.
Maybe they don’t want the points on their license, or don’t want to pay extra for their insurance. Or they just believe they’re innocent.
Most drivers who decide to fight the ticket will go to court on their own, hoping to convince the judge that either the police officer erred or there was a really good reason for them to be driving the way they were.
But others will let someone make their case for them.
While there are a couple of dozen criminal defense attorneys who take on traffic court, there’s only a small cadre of lawyers who dedicate a significant part of their practice to representing people with traffic tickets.
“There’s only about 20 in the state,” said Daniel Polage, a Yakima attorney who specializes in traffic court. “We all know each other.”
For Polage, it’s a practice that keeps him on the road, going out as far as Skamania County and the Wenatchee area. He typically tries to limit his practice to about a 100-mile radius of his home office in Yakima.
For clients, he said that having an attorney can help them keep their driving records clean and avoid insurance surcharges.
And one local prosecutor said that having an attorney represent you in traffic court’s not a bad idea, if you can afford it.
In 2017, there were a total of 710,067 cases filed in traffic courts statewide, according to the state court system. In Yakima County, there were 34,195 traffic cases, with nearly half coming through Yakima Municipal Court.
In most criminal proceedings, a defendant has an attorney representing them. But traffic tickets are infractions and do not require the defendant to have an attorney. For some offenses, the short-term stakes are low enough that most people who go before the judge do it on their own — pro se, as it’s referred to in court.
In Yakima Municipal Court, about 10 percent of the defendants appear in traffic court with an attorney, said Cynthia Martinez, Yakima prosecuting attorney.
Polage’s journey to becoming a traffic defense attorney actually started on the other side of the courtroom.
A Davis High School graduate, Polage went to law school at Pepperdine University, and later had an internship at the Yakima County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, where he was assigned to prosecute traffic offenses in Yakima County District Court.
“Every case was a hearing, with all the things, opening statements, present evidence,” Polage said. “I did that for about four years and then went out and flipped over to the defense side.”
That was about 12 years ago, and he noticed that there were attorneys on the west side of the state who specialized in defending people for traffic tickets. At that time, there was not much of a market for it on the east side of the Cascades, but Polage was asked to take on a few traffic cases for west-side attorneys.
Four years ago, he decided to devote his practice to traffic law full time, and business has picked up.
While speeding tickets are the majority of his work, Polage said he’s seeing some charges under the state’s new distracted driving law that prohibits using any handheld electronic device while driving.
There are a few reasons people would want an attorney in traffic court, even though the cost can be between $300 and $500 for cases where fines start at $125 for speeding.
Among Polage’s clients are commercial drivers, for whom speeding tickets and other traffic citations could cost them their livelihoods.
“Commercial drivers don’t have the options other folks do,” Polage said. “Sometimes they’re blocked out of negotiating a lesser offense because of commercial regulations.”
Others will hire him because they don’t want to have a ticket go on their record and drive up their insurance rates. Polage typically charges clients $300 for his services, which can be cheaper than an insurance surcharge that the customer can pay for years.
“A few, about 28 percent of my clients are pure principle,” Polage said. “They don’t feel they did anything wrong. It was nitpicky and they want to have their day in court.”
There are also people from the west side who get a speeding ticket while visiting the area, especially those who come for events at the area’s wineries. Instead of having to make another trip back to Yakima County, they’ll hire an attorney to deal with the matter on their behalf, Polage said.
While most people who fight a ticket will do it themselves, there are advantages to having an attorney, Polage and Martinez acknowledge.
“(Lawyers) can look over the matter an determine whether you were charged properly,” said Martinez, who acknowledged hiring an attorney when she had a traffic ticket.
Polage said a client may not know which documents to request before the hearing to look for a technical matter, but attorneys do.
And while it may be tempting for a driver to seek deferred prosecution, where the ticket is dropped if the driver obeys the law for a full year, Polage said it is an option that can only be used once every seven years. An attorney, he said, can help a client see if that is an option, or if there is another way to fight the ticket and save the deferral for another time.
But even if the prosecution’s case is apparently airtight, Polage said an attorney can negotiate with the prosecutor to reduce the charge to a lesser offense or even a non-moving violation, things that carry either few or no penalties with insurance carriers. And with his practice, he gets to know the prosecutors and judges in Central Washington.
Martinez, the prosecutor, said it is sometimes better to let someone else do the talking.
“When you have someone in your office whining, it’s better to have a third party on your behalf. You can take the emotion out of it,” she said.