Most of us live very busy lives: between work, school and/or family obligations, we might mistakenly forget about other important obligations, like traffic court. So, what happens if you receive a traffic ticket in Rhode Island and fail to appear for your court date or trial?
Default Judgment/ Guilty in Absentia
According to Rhode Island Traffic Tribunal Rules of Procedure, Rule 17(c), the traffic court (including both the Rhode Island Traffic Tribunal and the various municipal courts in Rhode Island) may enter a default judgment against a motorist if they do not appear in court. This includes both motorists who fail to appear at initial appearances (arraignments) and trials.
A default judgment essentially means that the court will issue a ruling against the motorist, finding them guilty in absentia (in their absence). At which time, the judge or magistrate will impose their sentence based on this guilty finding. The sentence may include:
- a fine
- court costs
- driver retraining courses
- license suspension
The penalties imposed after a default judgment depend largely on the severity of the violation and the motorist’s previous driving history. Although, most judges do not give motorists the benefit of the doubt when they fail to appear and usually impose harsher sentences than if they had appeared in court and entered a guilty plea. For example, the judge may impose the maximum fine rather than the minimum fine allowed by law.
Motion to Vacate a Default Judgment
It is crucial that you address a default judgment as soon as possible. The first step in removing a default judgment is to file a Motion to Vacate with the court. When filing a Motion to Vacate, a motorist will need to explain the reason for the missed court date and their defense to the violation(s). Upon receipt of the Motion, the court will then set a motion hearing date.
At the hearing, a motorist or their traffic ticket attorney must appear and present arguments as to why the court should remove the default judgment. Rule 20 RI Traffic Tribunal Rules of Procedure governs these motions and includes some reasons why the court may grant such a motion:
(a) Mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect;
(b) Newly discovered evidence;
(c) Fraud, misrepresentation, or misconduct of an adverse party;
(d) The judgment or order is void;
(e) The judgment or order has been satisfied, released, or discharged, or the judgment or order is no longer equitable that the judgment or order should have prospective application; or
(f) Any other reason justifying relief from the operation of the judgment, or order, including that relief is warranted in the interests of justice.
Practically speaking some instances where the Court may consider granting a motion:
- The motorist did not receive proper notice of the violation and/or hearing date
- The motorist was ill
- The motorist has now retained an attorney
What happens if the Traffic Court denies a Motion to Vacate?
If the Court denies the Motion to Vacate, the previous judgment will stand. The motorist can appeal the judgment or the motorist will need to comply with the sentence imposed.
What happens if the Traffic Court grants a Motion to Vacate?
If the Traffic Court grants a motorist’s Motion to Vacate a Default Judgment, the Court can:
- Modify the sentence imposed at the missed court appearance
- The court may dismiss based on a motorist’s good driving record
- The court may dismiss certain violations if proper proof is provided (such as possessing valid registration, insurance, or a driver’s license)
- The court may reduce the fine
- The court may reduce or remove a license suspension
- The court may modify or remove additional sanctions such as driver retraining and/or community service
- Schedule a new arraignment or trial date
If a new court date is scheduled, the motorist must appear at that future court date, or again a default judgment will be imposed.
Do I need a RI traffic ticket lawyer to remove a default judgment?
While many motorists chose to file their own Motion to Vacate to remove a default judgment, it is certainly advisable to consult with and/or hire an experienced Rhode Island traffic ticket attorney. Usually, the outcome will be much more favorable with an attorney. The attorney can generally schedule and resolve the motion quicker and with greater success.
If you missed court for a traffic ticket at the RI Traffic Tribunal or a Municipal Court in Rhode Island, contact the skilled RI traffic ticket lawyers at Abilheira Law today. Our attorneys appear before these courts every day and have the experience to get you out of a default judgment. Call us today at 401-245-5100 for a free consultation.