The Myth: I Have an Emergency Justification That Will Get My Ticket Dismissed

When you represent motorists in traffic court, like I do, you hear many different versions of the same story. And here’s one of the most common:

“Yes, I did it. But I had a good reason. There was an emergency.”

Believe me, it’s no fun to tell these clients, or potential clients, that whatever situation they are about to describe is probably not an emergency. I’ve gotten pretty good at doing it in a way that does not offend them. But I’m usually correct.

Before delving into these conversations, let me be clear: there is an emergency justification defense available to the motorist in traffic court.

The law even spells this out. Summonses issued for VTL 1225, better known to the public as “cell phone tickets,” provides:

3. Subdivision two of this section shall not apply to (a) the use of a mobile telephone for the sole purpose of communicating with any of the following regarding an emergency situation: an emergency response operator; a hospital, physician's office or health clinic; an ambulance company or corps; a fire department, district or company; or a police department, (b) any of the following persons while in the performance of their official duties: a police officer or peace officer; a member of a fire department, district or company; or the operator of an authorized emergency vehicle as defined in section one hundred one of this chapter, or (c) the use of a hands-free mobile telephone.

Want the short version of that? No problem. You can lawfully use the phone while driving if you’re speaking to emergency personnel about an emergency situation.

Here’s the catch. Judges in traffic court construe this justification very narrowly.

Example 1: You’re driving to the doctor’s office for an appointment.

Not an emergency.

Example 2: You are rushing home to tend to your sick child.

Not an emergency.

Example 3: You are a medical or emergency professional going to work.

Not an emergency.

None of these situations present an imminent risk to human life or health.

So what situations might qualify? They are quite extreme, and if they haven’t to you, it was a day you’ll never forget. If you’re driving your pregnant wife to the hospital for a prenatal exam, that is not an emergency. But if she’s in active labor, ding ding!

Your emergency situation must be one in which any rational person would commit the traffic offense you committed — and would do so for the purpose of potentially saving a human life. That’s a high bar to cross.

Even if you think your situation qualifies, you’re not home free. The judge may ask for you to prove your emergency situation — hospital admission papers, for example. And the judge will almost always ask why you didn’t explain the situation to the officer. If your wife is in labor in the back and a cop stops you for speeding, it stands to reason you would request the officer’s assistance.

The best way to fight a ticket is to not have to prove anything — and that’s what attorneys do. We work to undermine the officer’s case. They are the ones with the burden of proof, not you, the motorist. That’s one of the few advantages you have in traffic court. So if you think you have an emergency justification defense, you could be right, but you’re best off speaking to an attorney before trying it out in court.