Fighting a traffic ticket in Philadelphia can be tricky, and may make you wonder whether it is worth fighting at all.

A reader recently wrote into Curious Philly about the process after he successfully fought a ticket for a moving violation. The reader — who asked not to be named — said he was one of the only people to win their case, even though no police officers showed up in court to defend the tickets.

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Why, the reader wanted to know, is that allowed, and how common is it for people to lose?

Lawyer Michael Coard says it’s very common. According to court statistics from 2018, only about a quarter of moving violations cases resulted in a not guilty verdict, or were withdrawn or dismissed.

And, contrary to popular belief, the officer who gave you the ticket doesn’t have to attend the hearing to defend the ticket, unless you appeal to the Court of Common Pleas. And their absence earlier on isn’t cause to get a ticket dismissed.

So, is it worth fighting a ticket? Yes. The process can be confusing, and, depending on what kind of citation you have, works differently. According to Coard, most people don’t know how to effectively challenge their tickets. And, you might be able to get your ticket withdrawn or reduced. Here’s what you need to know about how to do it, and how it works now.

What kind of ticket is it?

Contesting a ticket — whether it’s a parking ticket or a moving violation — can be complicated, and there are different groups in charge of different kinds of offenses.

Parking violations are handled by the Bureau of Administrative Adjudication. These penalties are civil, and strictly fines.

Moving violations — for offenses like speeding, running a red light and more serious violations like driving with a suspended license — are handled by the Municipal Court Traffic Division. These citations can carry more serious penalties and consequences, including jail time. For serious offenses, you’ll want to talk to a lawyer.

It should be clear what kind of ticket you have, but the processes for contesting them are very different.

How to contest a ticket

In the midst of COVID-19, like many other things, contesting a ticket works a little bit differently.

For parking tickets: Tickets can be disputed on the Philadelphia Parking Authority website. You can get information about your ticket at 888-591-3636.

The Bureau of Administrative Adjudication, which holds hearings for disputed parking tickets, has suspended in-person hearings because of COVID-19. You can contest a parking ticket by mail or online, and it’s up to you to provide evidence of why you shouldn’t have been ticketed. You’ll be asked to submit written evidence and any other documentation (such as photos) for why your ticket should be dismissed. There is no fee to contest a ticket.

Then you have to wait for a decision. If you disagree with the ruling, you’ll have 30 days to either appeal, or pay the fine.

A few other tips:

  • If you want to dispute a ticket, you should do so quickly, otherwise you can be charged late fees. In most cases, you have 25 days to dispute or pay a ticket before getting a penalty.
  • According to the Philadelphia Parking Authority website, don’t pay a ticket you want to contest. “In accordance with the Philadelphia Code and Charter, payments of parking tickets are considered an admission of guilt and liability.”

For moving violations: When you are given your citation, sign the back of your ticket that you are pleading not guilty, and notify the office by mail or online that you intend to contest the ticket within 10 days of getting the ticket. Then, the most important thing is to show up at your date, or a trial can be held in your absence. The police officer is not required to be at this hearing.

You can get information about your file at 855-868-1675 or on the Traffic Division website.

Your case will be given a trial date, and it will be assigned to a hearing officer or a judge depending on how severe the violation is and the possible penalties that you could face.

If you don’t agree with the decision issued in the dispute process, you can file an appeal within 30 days.

Another new virtual option because of COVID-19: If you want to fight a moving violation, you can call and ask for a pre-trial meeting with the District Attorney’s office over Zoom, which could mean you don’t have to appear in person.

One note: This process can be slow, because there is a backlog of pending cases and disputes. “The pace right now is very slow. Pre-COVID, there were dozens, if not hundreds, of proceedings and hearings happening per day, and that has basically slowed to a trickle,” said Jane Roh, communications director for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office.

“Right now there are about 20 Zoom meetings happening a week.” Roh says, though they are hoping to increase that number to 20 a day.

During this meeting, “we then read the ticket, the driver’s history, and listen to the driver and either make an appropriate offer to downgrade or withdraw the violation or go to trial in front of a hearing officer or judge,” says Assistant District Attorney Robert Daisy.

“Our people will review it, and a lot of times we will make an offer,” says Roh. Which means that you can have your ticket reduced or dismissed without a traffic court hearing. If you’re unsatisfied with the result, you can still go to trial.

The Municipal Court Traffic division, at 800 Spring Garden St., is open with limited access for payments (which can also be done by phone or online), appeals, and if your vehicle has been impounded under the Live Stop program.

Should I fight a ticket?

According to Daisy, fighting a ticket can be worth your time.

If you think you’ve been ticketed unfairly, fighting it gives you the chance to defend yourself and possibly get your fine withdrawn or reduced.

If you got a moving violation for something that you’ve since fixed, you may be able to get the citation withdrawn. According to Roh, providing proof that you fixed the ticketable offense — a receipt for a new bulb after a broken taillight, for instance — may get your fine dismissed.

In other cases, it may be worth fighting if you think the original ticket was unfair. For Adam Baker, a 25-year-old musician from Lafayette Hill, “it was worth fighting the tickets because they were unreasonably issued in my case,” he said.

This year, Baker got two parking tickets in the span of 90 minutes for being parked in a no-parking zone. Baker claims he had no time to move his car, and didn’t feel it was fair to be charged twice for the same violation. So he contested them, and explained that he believed that he should only be charged once for the same violation. Baker said both of his tickets were withdrawn.

How to fight your ticket more effectively

If you want to fight your ticket, here are tips from lawyer Michael Coard on what to do:

  • While officers don’t have to be present at the initial stages of a dispute, if you appeal a guilty verdict on a moving violation, the officer who issued the ticket will be required to attend the hearing. If the officer isn’t present, you can object and ask that the ticket be dismissed, because they are the prime witness. You can ask them specific questions about your ticket, such as the precise location your ticket was given, the reason it was given, and the exact date and time the ticket was printed. If there aren’t specific answers, you may be able to get your ticket dismissed.
  • For a parking violation, check if there are details missing on the ticket itself. Coard recommends asking that the ticket be dismissed if it doesn’t have the exact address where you were parked. The ticket cannot be general and just say a street name.
  • If the initial hearing finds you liable, Coard recommends asking for a “written decision that sets forth the specific factual basis and specific legal basis for the ruling against you.” You can use this written statement in your defense if you want to take the case further.

*Correction: An earlier version of this article combined moving and parking violations. These are separate processes.