The Rule of Strict Liability and Why Excuses Don’t Work in Traffic Court

scales and gavel

To be convicted of a crime, two things must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt:

  1. A person committed an act prohibited by law known in Latin as the “actus reas.”
  2. That person had the intention to commit that action, also known in Latin as the “mens rea.”

This is not the case for most traffic citations where the Court applies the rule of strict liability. Strict liability is the concept that a person is liable for committing an action, regardless of what his/her intent or mental state was when committing that action. Even though in California, all law provisions relating to misdemeanors apply to infractions (Penal Code 19.8), most traffic citations do not require the element of intent.

Because traffic infractions do not require the element of intent to be convicted, an Officer needs only to prove that the violation occurred. So, unlike a criminal charge where an action is done without malicious intent or out of necessity, one might be found not guilty. These same defenses are not viable when applied to traffic infractions. If you are moving along with traffic at 75 mph, it is not a defense to say, “I was going with the flow of traffic.” If you are in the carpool lane by yourself because you were cut off and “trying to avoid an accident,” you will still be found guilty of the infraction based on strict liability. A court may consider these reasons when deciding a fine, but they will not dismiss a citation even though you did not intend to violate it. Commonly people at trial will admit guilt to a ticket, thinking that because they did not willfully mean to commit that violation, they will be found not guilty. Most often, the Court will take that acknowledgment as an admission to the breach and find you guilty.

Another rule that closely relates to strict liability is that “ignorance of the law is not an excuse.” Essentially, it means that if someone breaks the law, he or she is still liable even if they had no knowledge of the law being broken. The California vehicle code contains thousands of pages of finely printed statutes that no one can completely know. Even so, the Court will not dismiss a citation because you did not think it was the law.

We at RPM Law have been handling traffic citations for over a decade and know what viable defenses work at trial for traffic infractions. If you need help with a ticket, speak with someone who understands the law inside and out, give us a call at RPM Law. We have handled thousands of these cases and have the experience to help you protect your driving record.