Almost everyone has heard of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. If nothing else, you’ve heard dialog in a movie or on television where a police officer informs someone being arrested of their “right to remain silent” because anything they say “may be used against them in a court of law”. But to date, the law regarding Florida traffic tickets does not require an officer to inform someone of this right when issuing a traffic citation, nor is it required that the defendant be informed of this at the hearing held in front of a Traffic Hearing Officer. But this can create problems down the road. Suppose that during a stop for a speeding ticket in Palm Beach, some criminal activity was observed, such as possession of drugs or an unregistered handgun, and the defendant was charged with that crime. Generally, when arrested for a crime, the person arrested must be informed of their Fifth Amendment rights. But what if the defendant, in course of the hearing on traffic tickets, makes statements that add to the evidence against him or her on the criminal charge? Last month, the government entities that make decisions on the Florida Rules of Traffic Court had a discussion about the implications of the lack of informing a defendant of these rights when traffic tickets are involved.
One concern of the government is the lack of uniformity across the state on this issue. In most counties, this issue isn’t even addressed. But if you got a ticket in Broward County, the judge will not conduct a hearing on traffic tickets until a decision has been made on whether any criminal charges will be brought against the defendant. This policy is based on the fact that the hearings on traffic tickets are actually civil cases and not criminal cases. In a civil case, the court can require you to testify even if the evidence helps the other side. One issue with this is that anything you say in that case can be used against you not only in a criminal matter related to that civil proceeding, but in any criminal proceeding.
While no previous case or law has expressly applied the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination to hearings on traffic tickets in Florida, there are a couple of safeguards already in place. Under current law in a deposition in a civil case, a witness may assert his or her Fifth Amendment rights and refuse to give testimony if the answers to those questions could possibly result in criminal charges against the witness. So theoretically a defendant in a proceeding regarding traffic tickets could assert that privilege if he or she has reasonable grounds to think that an answer to a question could be a “link in the chain of evidence” in a criminal case. But even if the defendant asserts those rights, it is up to the discretion of the trial court to decide whether the testimony would affect the defendant’s rights based upon a standard of a “substantial and real” threat of a criminal prosecution. “Merely trifling or imaginary” threats are not sufficient.
Ultimately, the government entities decided that there is currently no justification to actually change the law regarding the Fifth Amendment concerns for traffic tickets, they do encourage other courts to investigate and implement policies similar to the one for defendants who got a ticket in Broward County. In fact, they did adopt a portion of the proposed amendment to the current law requiring that traffic hearing officers receive training on recognizing situations where the defendant’s constitutional right against self-incrimination may be affected.
Regardless of the actions of the Committee and Conference that examined these issues, it illustrates the importance of having an experienced attorney to help you navigate this complicated situation, especially with the discrepancies in courts around the state. If your testimony in the hearing on traffic tickets against you can be limited, or even avoided, these issues would have to be addressed prior to any hearing. An attorney can give you advice that could protect your Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination regarding Florida traffic tickets.