Can a Private Citizen Issue a Traffic Ticket? Watch out for the Rats!

Written by Gregory Monte.

“A law enforcement officer may issue a citation based upon information that the defendant has committed a summary violation, which information may be received from … a witness …”

Rule 405. Issuance of Citation (PA Rules of Criminal Procedure)

What the Law Says in Pennsylvania

The short answer to my blog post question is:

“Yes, a citizen can rat you out – but only indirectly.”

Rule 405 quoted above provides one way that a citizen of Pennsylvania can “issue” a traffic ticket – he can provide testimony to a police officer who then issues the citation.

But there is another rule, Number 400, which indicates another possible way – the complaint.

“Criminal proceedings in summary cases shall be instituted either by: (1) issuing a citation to the defendant; or (2) filing a citation; or (3) filing a complaint …”

The complaint will not necessarily lead to a summons, however, because yet another rule,  Number 421, gives the local authority the choice about:

“… whether to issue process. If the issuing authority decides to issue process, a summons shall be issued.”

All that this means is that you might get a break if the local prosecutor doesn’t choose to pursue the case.

Does This Apply to Other States?

Just so you realize that this doesn’t just apply to Pennsylvania, consider the answers given on the website AVVO.Com by several attorneys to the following question:

“Can someone report a traffic violation by calling in someone’s license plates to the Police?”

Answer #1The sworn testimony of a witness is evidence. if they have a witness willing to come to court and testify as to observed conduct that violated the traffic code, they can certainly write the ticket.”

Answer #2Traffic violations, as with crimes, can be reported by private citizens who are not law enforcement officers. The ultimate issue may come down to credibility, but testimony by an eye witness can be enough for a ticket to be issued, and for a guilty verdict at trial.”

Answer #3This is not an uncommon occurrence. However, because the officer did not witness the incident, only if the reporting citizen is willing to testify, could the prosecuting authority meet their burden of proof.”

Stop Signs and Red Light Violations – But Not Speeding

Either of the two methods described above for Pennsylvania could be used by a private citizen to report a motorist for failing to come to a complete stop at a stop sign or for running a red light.  It is important to realize, however, that this would not apply to speeding tickets.  Not even a police officer’s testimony about how fast he thought you were going is admissible in court.  If you want to know more about testimony concerning speeding, I wrote about this issue in a previous post Police Officer’s Opinion About Your Speed – Not Enough to Convict.

So, while you are safe from private citizens ratting you out on a speeding charge, you don’t have the same protections for other traffic offenses.

An Actual Courtroom Example – Watch Out for Citizen Rats.

As you will read about in the case example below, a private citizen could witness your failure to stop at a stop sign and report it to the local police:

Com. v. Dougherty, 679 A. 2d 779 – Pa: Superior Court 1996

In this case, witness Robert Gradle notified Officer Joseph Sadoff of the Springfield Township Police Department that on the morning of August 5, 1994 …

“he was jogging in the area of Grandview Road and Parkview Drive in Springfield. At that time, Mr. Gradle observed appellant drive his Subaru through two stop signs. After interviewing Mr. Gradle, Officer Sadoff filed a citation charging appellant with failure to obey stop signs.”

The court had the following to say:

“Okay, I don’t need any argument. I view this as a matter of total credibility. It’s a question of Mr. Gradle says he ran the stop sign. He [appellant] says he didn’t. However, in this case I see no reason why any citizen that had no prior contact at all with this individual would come in, take the trouble, and make up something that he went through a stop sign. Accordingly, I find him credible and I find your client guilty.”

The lesson?

Watch out for citizen “rats.”

Free Resources

But if you do happen to receive a stop sign ticket, check out my free resources listed below. Even if you don’t live in PA, the strategies used are applicable in most states. You may just find a way to beat that RAT!


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