Occasionally, I have clients or prospective clients who say to me that it was not their fault that they were speeding or committing other traffic violations. They are saying to me that they were justified in their behavior. Actually, they want me to understand that they had a reason for doing what they did. However, being able to point to a reason is not the same as being justified. Justification refers to a legal defense where a defendant admits the criminal conduct but argues that it should be legally excused. My experience is that in relation to traffic offenses, it rarely applies once the case reaches a court. In a handful of situation, justification is going to be accepted by an officer based on the circumstances that exist in the moment. If you are speeding to the hospital with a pregnant woman in labor or a shooting/stabbing victim in your back seat, then an officer might exercise discretion and not issue you a citation for speeding.
What is Justification?
Justification can be a legal defense to any criminal or traffic offense.
The Georgia justification defenses have been summarized as:
When the person's conduct is justified under Code Section 16–3–21 [use of force in self-defense], 16–3–23 [use of force in defense of habitation], 16–3–24 [use of force in defense of other property], 16–3–25 [entrapment], or 16–3–26 [coercion]; (2)[w]hen the person's conduct is in reasonable fulfillment of his duties as a government officer or employee; (3) [w]hen the person's conduct is the reasonable discipline of a minor by his parent or a person in loco parentis; (4)[w]hen the person's conduct is reasonable and is performed in the course of making a lawful arrest; (5)[w]hen the person's conduct is justified for any other reason under the laws of this state; or (6)[i]n all other instances which stand upon the same footing of reason and justice as those enumerated in this article.
Most traffic defendants who argue for justification argue that coercion or the other instances alternatives apply. Coercion is a defense only if the person coerced has no reasonable way, other than committing the crime to escape the threat of harm.
How It Plays Out
Examples are helpful in seeing why the courts do not often find speeding or other traffic offenses to be justified
In Jones v. State (2012), Jones was driving on Interstate 285 in the Atlanta area. He was observed driving 103 mph (70 mph zone likely) in the far right zone right before that lane ended. He said that the tractor-trailers in the lane that he needed to merge into were bunched up and would not let him in so he had no choice but to floor it and get ahead of the lead tractor-trailer. He was charged with speeding, reckless conduct, and reckless driving. He suggested that his only other choice would have been to pull over and stop on the shoulder of the road until traffic cleared, but then he would have had to explain to his son who was a passenger that he was not up to the difficulties of driving on 285. He explained to the trial court that as an Army veteran he preferred to take a bold, strong response to adverse circumstances. He was convicted and sentenced to serve 20 days in jail followed by the balance of twelve months on probation. He appealed the conviction arguing that the court should have instructed the jury on justification. The Georgia Court of Appeals found that the situation did not rise to the level of justification, especially since it was his voluntary actions that placed him in the situation where the choice to speed became possible. In other words, he could have better assessed the situation while in the merge lane.
In Luke v. State (2010), the Court of Appeals found that justification did not need to be instructed on justification. “The evidence at trial showed that in the early morning hours of May 23, 1993, a Georgia state trooper attempted a traffic stop of Luke's car after radar indicated that he was traveling at 97 miles per hour. Luke did not stop, however, and the ensuing chase continued for fifty miles, across county lines, with as many as ten to fourteen law enforcement vehicles, lights flashing and sirens blaring, in pursuit. During the chase, Luke evaded several attempts to stop him (including a rolling roadblock), reached speeds of up to 120 miles per hour and forced other motorists off the road. At one point, he drove on the wrong side of a four-lane highway for some distance. The chase finally came to a stop when Luke's car ran out of gas. After Luke's car stopped, he barricaded himself inside his vehicle, smoked crack and pointed a handgun at his own head, which kept the police at bay. For four hours, Luke refused to surrender. The stand-off ended when police rushed the car after Luke put his gun on the floorboard. During the ensuing scuffle, Luke shot a state trooper and also shot himself in the leg.” Luke testified that he was speeding away from Augusta because he believed he was being pursued across the state by assassins armed with Uzis. The court did not find that the defendant's drug-addled subjective belief rose to the level of justification.
The defendant in Hines v. State argued that he was told to leave the Buffalo's restaurant and left to avoid a fight by getting in his car and driving away. There were other legal alternatives available. Neither coercion or justification applied to eliminate his responsibility for DUI.
Frasard v. State (2006) is an interesting set of facts. A uniformed Atlanta Police Department officer was in patrol in an unmarked police vehicle as part of a program to curtail street crime in connection with the SEC Championship football game. He was in the left lane going five miles per hour observing a suspicious situation. Frasard exited a parking garage and pulled up behind him. The right lane was clear. Frasard began honking his horn and weaving back and forth in his lane to try to encourage the officer to go faster. The officer waved for him to go around. Frasard refused to so, because, as he explained, he did not want to pass the other driver on the right and then have to move back in front of him to make a left turn as he neared his destination. When they both had to stop for a red light, the uniformed officer got out and approached Frasard to see if he could address any issue. Frasard yelled at the officer, “You need to get out of my way. You have no right to go that slow.” This case is instructive because it points out an essential nature of an affirmative defense like justification. It requires that the defendant admit the underlying offense but argue that it is legally excused. Because Frasard disputed that he drove aggressively, justification could not apply.
In several of these situations, the defendants' insistence that they were in the right in violating the traffic laws appears to have ended up working against them.
What Should You Do?
As your attorney, I am always looking for the best way to present you and your case facts to the court to obtain the best result. I am not going to try to make an argument that is going to end up making the prosecutor or judge think that you are unreasonable. No one likes to be the wrong, but if you cannot look at the situation objectively, you may end up making your situation worse. When you are at the bottom of a hole, you should probably stop digging. In most of these cases, it is going to be better to take ownership of the conduct and admit that mistakes were made and ask for mercy. The bottom line from the case law seems to be that justification is rarely going to be available for these types of cases.
Sean Black of Black Law Offices has a lot of experience in presenting these types of cases and issues to courts that handle traffic cases throughout northeast Georgia. We are happy to consult with you to see what we can accomplish.