California traffic laws limit when you can make a U-turn. A U-turn is a full 180 degree turn that results in traveling in the opposite direction from when you started. If a law enforcement officer catches you making an illegal U-turn, you will get a ticket, you will have to pay a fine, and the ticket may affect your insurance rates. Consequences will be much worse if your illegal U-turn results in damage to another person or their property.
However, you may be able to get out of your ticket if you can prove that your U-turn was not illegal. To fight your ticket, your first step should be to read the text of the law that you allegedly violated to see if every element of the law applies to your situation.
Here are California's key U-turn laws from California's Vehicle Code (VC). Which law applies to you depends on whether you in a residential district, a business district, or an area that was neither residential or business.
No person in a business district shall make a U-turn, except at an intersection, or on a divided highway where an opening has been provided in accordance with VC § 21651. This turning movement shall be made as close as practicable to the extreme left-hand edge of the lanes moving in the driver's direction of travel immediately prior to the initiation of the turning movement, when more than one lane in the direction of travel is present.
This law says that you can make a U-turn in a business district, but it must be at an intersection or clearly marked opening in the highway. Obviously, if there is a visible sign that prohibits a U-turn in an opening, you may not make a U-turn there. If you get a ticket that charges you with violating this law, make sure that the area really is a business district. According to VC § 235, a business district a stretch of road in which 50% of the properties within 300 feet are used for business (600 feet if the business area is only on one side).
No person in a residence district shall make a U-turn when any other vehicle is approaching from either direction within 200 feet, except at an intersection when the approaching vehicle is controlled by an official traffic control device.
This law allows you to make a U-turn anywhere in a residential area, as long as there are no other cars approaching yours within 200 feet. However, this 200 feet rule does not apply at an intersection controlled by a stop light or stop sign. According to VC § 515, a residential district is one in which there are at least 16 homes or businesses within a quarter mile (13 homes or businesses if only on one side of the road). If you got a ticket for violating VC § 22130 and you can show that the area was not a residential district, that no cars within 200 feet were approaching, or that you made the U-turn at an intersection controlled by a stop sign or stop light, you may be able to fight your ticket.
No person shall make a U-turn upon any highway where the driver of such vehicle does not have an unobstructed view for 200 feet in both directions along the highway and of any traffic thereon.
This law says that unless you are not in a business district or a residential district (see laws above), you may make a U-turn as long as you have an unobstructed view of the road for 200 feet. This is true even if you cross over double yellow lines, unless the double yellow lines are two or more feet across, which indicate a divided highway. (U-turns on divided highways are governed by VC § 21651.) If you got a ticket for violating this law, you may be able to fight it if you did in fact have an unobstructed view of the road for 200 feet. It will be up to the officer to prove that your view was obstructed.
Here's an interesting fact: Taking a left into a driveway, backing out, and then driving in the opposite direction does not count as a U-turn. This was decided in the California Supreme Court case People v. McGuire (1978).
If you got a ticket for an illegal U-turn and it's a straightforward situation, you should be able to fight the ticket yourself, without the help of a lawyer. For example, if you were pulled over after your U-turn because a car was approaching within 200 feet, but it turns out that you were not in a residential district. As long as there wasn't an accident and you weren't driving negligently, you shouldn't need a lawyer to present evidence to the court about the fact that it wasn't a residential area.
However, if the U-turn ticket was part of a more complicated scenario – for example, if you were also cited for a DUI or if the turn resulted in an accident, then you will be wise to get help from a lawyer. A good lawyer will be able to put your case in the best possible light and in terms that the court will understand. Although it will be expensive to hire a lawyer, spending money to avoid further legal hassles will be money well spent. If you are found guilty of causing damage to other person or their property, it will have serious financial repercussions. And it's always best to get help from a lawyer for a DUI because the consequences are very serious – from loss of your license to jail time.
Learn more about Fighting Your Traffic Tickets or DUI Laws & Penalties on Nolo.com. For in depth information about how to fight your ticket, read Fight Your Ticket & Win in California, by David W. Brown (Nolo).
And if you decide that you need help from a lawyer, you can search for one with Nolo's Lawyer Directory.