Traffic Tickets and Traffic Court Guide

Millions of traffic tickets are issued each year in the United States. The average fine costs around $150, but in some states, a driver can be fined up to $2000 or more depending on the state where the offense occurred. The states of Michigan, New Jersey, New York and Texas have enacted a Driver Responsibility Program that establishes a system, which assigns points to moving violations and applied surcharges to offenders, based on the type of offense. Under some of these laws, drivers may face a separate fee after they are convicted or found responsible for the offense. Due to the exorbitant fees charged by each state, the traffic ticket system is an industry generating billions of dollars each year.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, first-time speeding offenders can be fined up to $1000 at a judge's discretion in the states of Georgia, Illinois, Nevada, New Hampshire and North Carolina.

Facts About Speeding Tickets

  • One in every six drivers will receive a speeding ticket each year.
  • Over 95% of people who receive a speeding ticket will pay the fine and not contest the citation. The remaining 5% who make an effort to fight their ticket usually have their case dismissed or receive reduced charges.
  • Police officers fail to show up to court between 30 to 50% of the time. This is usually ground for a dismissal in some states.
  • The group who receives the most speeding tickets is between the ages of 17 and 24.
  • More males receive speeding tickets than females; however, more females fight their tickets.
  • According to the National Motorists Association, the top ten states that issue the most speeding tickets are: Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, California, Texas, Georgia, Virginia, North Carolina, Massachusetts and Connecticut in that order.

What is a Traffic Violation?

Traffic laws are typically broken up into two categories; an infraction and a violation. An infraction is not considered a crime and the penalty is usually a fine. Most traffic tickets, such as non-moving violations and non-dangerous moving violations are considered infractions. A violation is more severe although the definition varies in each state. It is usually considered a crime and more serious violations may be classified as misdemeanor or felony traffic violations. These may include driving under the influence (DUI), reckless or dangerous driving, driving without auto insurance and failure to stop at the scene of an accident.

Individuals who are charged with a misdemeanor or a felony violation are afforded the same rights as any criminal defendant. They will be subject to the booking and bail process and have the right to a trial by a judge or jury. If they cannot afford an attorney, the court will appoint a public defender to represent them. The offender may be charged with a serious violation if it caused or threatened to cause injury to a person or property. Running a stop sign may only be an infraction of the law. However, if a pedestrian gets hit, the infraction may be categorized as a misdemeanor or even a felony. Individuals who have repeat DUI offenses, or a hit and run accident or are involved in an accident resulting in vehicular homicide will be charged with a felony.

The typical information that is contained on all traffic citations include:

  • An allegation that you have broken a traffic statute, including the precise section of the law that it relates to
  • The name of the jurisdiction of where the infraction occurred
  • The name of the traffic statute which was allegedly broken or pursuant to which the ticket is issued
  • The date, time and place of the alleged offense
  • The name and address of the person to whom the citation is issued
  • Identification of the vehicle, make, model, and license plate
  • Information on how to contest or dispute the allegation, including the name and address of the place to either acknowledge the allegation and pay the fine, or to contest the ticket.

Traffic laws vary in each state. Therefore, it's important to become familiar with the laws in the state where you reside or where you were cited for the offense.

Moving Violations

A moving violation occurs whenever a vehicle in motion violates a traffic law.

The most common moving violations include:

  • Driving over the posted speed limit
  • Running a stop sign or red light
  • Not stopping for a school bus or pedestrian
  • Making an illegal u-turn
  • Passing another vehicle illegally
  • Driving in a carpool lane illegally
  • Failure to yield the right of way

Depending on the seriousness and frequency of the moving violation, a driver may have his or her license suspended or permanently revoked. License suspensions can range from a few weeks to several years.

Serious moving violations include:

  • Driving on a suspended license
  • Reckless or dangerous driving
  • Operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated
  • Road rage
  • Racing on a public street
  • Vehicular homicide

Driving offenses that are charged as misdemeanors or felonies may carry possible jail time and heavy fines. It can cost the individual thousands of dollars in additional insurance premiums.

Non-Moving Violations

A non-moving violation typically involves parking your car illegally or receiving a "fix-it" ticket to repair faulty equipment, or removing modifications to your vehicle that are illegal. They are fined at a much lower rate than a moving violation and do not show up on your driving record.

The most common non-moving violations include:

  • Parking in front of a fire hydrant
  • Parking in a no-parking zone
  • Parking in front of an expired meter
  • Blocking the sidewalk
  • Double Parking
  • Parking in a handicapped space without DMV authorized disabled plate or placard

Unlike moving violations, a parking ticket is issued against the vehicle and not the driver. If you have not responded to a parking ticket within a certain period of time, a notice will be mailed to the address of the registered owner of the vehicle demanding that the parking ticket be paid.

Your vehicle can be towed and then impounded if the parking violations are not paid. However, in some states, the law prohibits license renewals for motorists with six or more unpaid tickets. Both your driver's license and vehicle registration may be flagged as non-renewable.

In the state of Illinois, if you have 10 or more unpaid parking tickets, your license can be suspended. In some cities, the police put a wheel-locking boot on cars with five or more unpaid tickets. Offenders must pay their fines before they can move their vehicle. Unpaid parking tickets may be turned over to a collection agency, which can hurt the offender's credit score. Late fees may be assessed if the ticket remains unpaid.

Vehicle maintenance and vehicle modification infractions may include:

  • Excessive muffler noise
  • No license plate
  • Driving with expired registration tags
  • Headlights or taillights not working
  • Cracked windshield
  • Illegal lights installed on your vehicle
  • Window tint is darker than the law allows

A fix-it ticket requires the motorist to fix or correct the violation and/or pay a fine. Some states issue a "Notice to Correct Violation" which is issued by an officer for an equipment, license, or registration violation. In the State of California, if you ignore a Notice to Correct Violation, the police agency will complain to the court. The court will then formally charge you with the violation and with the offense of failing to correct the violation as promised. The maximum penalty for this is a fine of $1000 and six months in jail.

Each city and state has different laws that govern how to correct a non-moving violation. Some states may require that you go to court with proof that you have corrected the problem, while others allow you to mail the signed ticket with proof of correction to the court along with your dismissal fee. You should check your local laws to find out what's required to correct the violation. Often, the instructions may be written on the back of the ticket.

Traffic Infractions, Misdemeanors and Felonies

Most individuals during their lifetime will end up getting pulled over for some type of traffic violation. While it's not the most pleasant experience, you can make it much easier if you are prepared in advance on how to properly conduct yourself. The most important thing to do is to remain calm. Always be polite to the officer and be prepared to provide law enforcement officials with your driver's license, a your current vehicle registration and proof of liability insurance. Beyond that, it's best to say as little as possible and never make any admissions regarding your driving.

Traffic Infractions

Examples of common traffic infractions are speeding, failure to stop at a red light or stop sign, tailgating, illegal u-turn or unsafe lane changes. These infractions are categorized as civil rather than criminal in nature. They are not punishable by jail and are not subject to trial by jury. The punishment is a fine that the offender is required to pay. Motorists stopped for moving violations are usually released after they sign a "Notice to Appear" which is printed on the ticket. The ticket will have information about when and where to appear for the court hearing.

Options to Handle a Traffic Ticket

Upon receipt of a traffic citation, the driver may have the following options, depending on the laws governing the state or county:

  • Pay the ticket and admit guilt
  • Attend driver's training or traffic school
  • Contest the ticket in court
  • Request a mitigation hearing

Drivers who wish to admit guilt and avoid going to court may pay the fine in person or by mail. Many states allow motorists to attend a traffic school course to avoid getting points on their license. Each state has a system that assigns point values for traffic offenses. If a driver accumulates a certain number of points in a given timeframe, his or her driver's license can be suspended.

A mitigation hearing is where the individual may appear in court or mail in a written statement admitting to the violation. However, they are allowed to explain the circumstances surrounding the infraction. Depending on your explanation and your driving record, the judge may adjust the penalty.

Those who wish to plead not guilty may go to court and request a contested hearing. You may testify or present any evidence or witnesses to support your innocence. The individual has the right to retain a lawyer to represent them at this hearing at their own expense. You may need to advise the Court Clerk if you wish to have the citing officer present. If the judge finds that the infraction was not committed, the case will be dismissed. If you are found guilty of the offense, the full amount of the penalty will be imposed.

If you are charged with a traffic infraction and fail to appear or fail to pay the fine by the specified date, a default judgment will be entered against you. Your driver's license may be suspended and/or a warrant for arrest may be issued.

Pleading guilty to a traffic infraction, such as speeding or an unsafe lane change leaves the driver with a clean criminal record. Prosecutors may offer to reduce a drunk-driving charge to a traffic infraction if the case is not likely to win at trial. A weak case may include a problem with the conduct of the arresting officer, the driver's chemical test, or another piece of evidence that may exonerate the offender. These are usually only available in cases where the driver's blood alcohol content (BAC) hovers near the legal limit of .08 percent.

Traffic Misdemeanors

Traffic violations categorized as misdemeanors can be punishable by a fine, a jail sentence or both. Individuals charged with such offenses should seek legal counsel from an attorney.

The most commonly prosecuted misdemeanor offenses include:

  • Driving Under the Influence(DUI)
  • Driving on a suspended or revoked license
  • Speeding of 40 mph or more in excess of the speed limit
  • Drag racing
  • Reckless driving
  • Leaving the scene of an accident

In most states, a traffic violation becomes a misdemeanor or felony if it causes injury to a person or property, or creates a real threat of injury to a person or property. For many of these violations, the driver will be taken into custody and required to post bail. Individuals accused of these more serious traffic violations are entitled to all the protections allowed under the constitution. As a criminal defendant, they have the right to a court-appointed attorney if they cannot afford one on their own. They have the right to request a trial by jury.

When a driver fails to appear in court on a misdemeanor traffic offense, the judge will issue a warrant for the person's arrest. Any bail that has been posted will be forfeited and the case will be continued until the defendant resolves the matter with the court.

Traffic Felonies

Felonies are typically the most serious crimes in any criminal law system and felony traffic offenses are no exception. An individual can be charged with a felony if they commit a traffic offense, which results in extensive property damage, serious injury, or the death of another person. Repeatedly driving on a revoked license is also considered a felony traffic offense.

A list of traffic felonies may include the following violations but are not limited to:

  • Repeat or aggravated DUI convictions
  • Vehicular homicide or vehicular manslaughter
  • Hit and run or leaving the scene of an accident
  • Striking a pedestrian in a crosswalk

Some states consider speeding in a school zone or construction zone a felony if the individual was traveling at a speed well above the posted speed limit. In Florida, a third offense for driving 50 mph over the limit is considered a felony.

Aggravated DUI offenses in some states may be categorized as:

  • An individual that has three or more DUI arrests
  • Commits DUI while driving a school bus with children
  • Is convicted of DUI following a collision which caused great bodily harm, or permanent disfigurement or disability
  • Has a second DUI conviction after a DUI conviction that caused reckless homicide or great bodily injury

The penalty for aggravated DUI can include the loss of driving privileges for at least one year, a minimum fine of $10,000 and possible imprisonment for one to three years.

Felony traffic convictions can result in sentences including expensive fines, community service, a criminal felony record, and substantial jail time. A convicted felon may lose the right to vote, own a gun, serve in the military and they may be prohibited from practicing certain professions.

Impact of a Guilty Plea in Traffic Court

After an individual has received a traffic citation, one of the most common questions is "should I just plead guilty and pay the ticket"? Before you decide, you need to be aware that in most states, the infraction will be on your record for at least the next three or five years, and seven years if you reside in Florida. Insurance companies can check their customers driving records and will increase their insurance premiums if they find a ticket. Additionally, entering a guilty plea automatically subjects you to the highest possible fine for the violation.

In most states, no particular criminal intent is required to convict a person of a minor traffic offense. This concept is referred to as strict liability. Strict liability offenses mean that the only proof needed is evidence that the person charged with the offense, actually committed the act.

Some examples of these are:

  • Failure to use turn signals
  • Failure to yield
  • Turning into the wrong lane
  • Driving a vehicle with burned-out headlights
  • Failure to use tow-bars when towing another vehicle
  • Parking next to a yellow curb
  • Parking in a handicap spot without the required permit
  • Overdue parking meters
  • Exceed the speed limit

If there is reliable evidence that the individual was speeding, it does not need to be proven that the driver intended to exceed the speed limit.

What are the DLC and NRVC?

Most states have signed the Driver License Compact (DLC). The theme of this is "One Driver, One License, One Record". Under the DLC, traffic violations issued to drivers licensed in another state are reported to the driver's home state. The home state will treat the offense as if it had been committed within its borders and apply its laws to the out-of-state offense. The American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA) maintains a list of states that have signed the DLC agreement.

The Non-Resident Violators Compact (NRVC) requires member states to suspend the driver's license of those who get traffic tickets for moving violations in other states and fail to pay them. The individual's licensing state will suspend his or her driver's license until the person complies with the terms of the citation. It is up to the states that are members of the NRVC whether or not to apply it to residents.

In extreme instances, a motorist cited for a traffic violation in a jurisdiction other than their home jurisdiction, must post collateral or bond to secure appearance for trial at a later date. If the offender is unable to do this, they may be taken into custody until the collateral or bond is posted. In some states, they may be taken directly to court for trial to be held.

The compact is not supposed to include non-moving violations. A member state may choose to voluntarily suspend the license of an individual who does not pay an out-of-state ticket for an equipment violation such as loud exhaust.

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