Have you received a traffic citation for a moving violation? This FAQ will help get you started on how to proceed. Remember that the advice is general and each city or county may have different laws or procedures. If you have a specific legal question, contact a local traffic ticket attorney.
Traffic Court vs Criminal Court
Although some states may consider minor traffic violations as a crime, in most states, these are not usually handled in a criminal court. But traffic violations resulting in more serious misdemeanor and felony offenses can be handled there, especially if there’s a possibility that the offense(s) may lead to jail time.
Serious driving-related offenses such as driving under the influence (DUI), vehicle homicide, and reckless driving go to criminal court. Speeding violations, meanwhile, and other less serious traffic laws will go to traffic court.
To cite differences between the two courtrooms, traffic courts are less formal. Here, there is no right to a court-appointed attorney, so it is common to see people without legal counsel who represent themselves.
The stakes in a traffic court are also much lower. The worst thing you can end up with after a traffic court when you are found guilty is paying a fine, or getting your driving privileges revoked or suspended.
How do Traffic Court Trials start?
A traffic court trial starts in a similar procedure as any other court trial. A clerk will call each case, and the driver, along with the traffic officer who issued the ticket will come up to the front.
Here, if the driver is present but the officer isn’t, the driver will win by default and the judge will dismiss the ticket.
If both parties are present, the trial will begin with attorneys making opening statements explaining to the jury what they think the evidence will show.
There will be times when opening statements are bypassed. When this happens, the presentation of evidence will begin right after the traffic court clerk calls the case, and the government will start presenting its evidence.
Do I have to sign a ticket?
Signing a ticket is not an admission of guilt, and police officers are not attempting to trick you by asking you to sign a ticket. Signing the ticket only means that you promise to appear in court on the scheduled date, pay the fine, or take some other action specified by the local court. If you won’t promise to appear in court, the officer will take you into custody and you will be held until you are brought before a judge.
Where do I have to go to take care of a ticket?
Traffic tickets are handled by the local county or city court where they are issued. The court’s name and address should be listed on the ticket.
How do I contest a ticket if I can’t go to court?
In most jurisdictions, you need to respond by the court date, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to appear in person. Many courts allow you to submit an affidavit of defense explaining any defenses you are raising. They will consider the affidavit as if you were testifying in person and then mail you their ruling.
You can also have an attorney appear on your behalf. They can either request a new date when you can appear or ask that the ticket be dismissed on purely legal grounds. However, they cannot argue facts without you present to testify unless the case is before a court that will allow you to testify via affidavit.
What happens if I don’t show up in court?
At best, if you fail to appear in court as promised, a finding of guilt will be entered and a judgment for the fine and court costs will be entered against you. If you do not pay in a timely manner, your credit score may be damaged and the court may issue an order to garnish your bank account or wages.
Failure to appear or pay a fine may also result in your license being suspended. A warrant may also be issued for your arrest. While a SWAT team almost certainly won’t bang down your door one night, you will be taken into custody if the police see the warrant at a later traffic stop or other contact.
If the officer doesn’t show up, do I win?
Contrary to popular belief, an officer not showing up is not an automatic win. While the officer is needed to testify if a ticket is challenged, the court will usually grant the prosecution one or two adjournments to get the officer to appear in the same way they’d be willing to move the court date for you.
Excessive delays to the officer repeatedly not showing or other causes that are in the control of the prosecution are grounds for dismissal.
What is a no contest plea?
A no contest plea, sometimes referred to by its Latin name “nolo contendere,” literally means that you do not wish to contest the charges against you. While previously it might have resulted in reduced penalties or lower insurance rates, today it is virtually the same as a guilty plea.
The only real benefit to a no contest plea today is that, unlike a guilty plea, it cannot be used against you as an admission of guilt in a civil lawsuit (this would apply mainly where you are cited for an accident causing property damage or injury to another person).
Does traffic school erase a violation?
Traffic school doesn’t erase a violation from your record, but it will make it less visible. Insurance companies won’t see it, and your insurance rates won’t go up, but courts and law enforcement agencies will see it. If you receive another violation, it won’t be handled as a first offense, and depending on how long it was since your last one, you may not be eligible to go to traffic school again.
Is a traffic ticket a crime?
Most traffic offenses are civil violations and are not crimes. Serious offenses, such as reckless driving or DUI, may be considered crimes. To avoid having a criminal record, never plead guilty to an offense unless you know for sure that it is only a violation.
Do I need a lawyer?
Most people handle traffic tickets on their own because the consequences of a first or second minor violation are small. However, successfully defending a traffic ticket is a very difficult task because police officers are presumed to be telling the truth about tickets they issued. If you need to beat a ticket to avoid license suspension, losing your job, or other serious consequences, you’ll almost certainly want a lawyer to represent you.
What if I can’t pay the fine?
To avoid a judgment being entered against you, a suspended license, or possible arrest, contact the court as soon as possible. Usually, you will be able to arrange a payment plan or alternative sentence such as community service. As long as you can show true financial hardship and good faith efforts to pay, courts will not be looking to put you in jail.
Will a traffic ticket increase my insurance rates?
Insurance companies have the right to raise your insurance rates if you are convicted of a traffic offense because it signals that you are a more risky driver. The final decision rests solely with your insurance company, but the answer is usually yes. The only exceptions are usually technical, nonmoving violations not related to safety such as forgetting to renew your registration.
Are red light or speed camera tickets “real”?
In some jurisdictions, red light and speed camera tickets carry the same weight as other tickets. Usually, these cameras are reviewed by police officers and are subject to the same court proceedings as any other ticket in that jurisdiction. Camera-issued tickets in other jurisdictions may only be punishable by a fine and not points or license suspension. Since the effects of these tickets vary widely, contact a local attorney to be sure of how to proceed.
Is it possible to beat a traffic ticket?
The short answer is yes. You have the right to go to court, to have the prosecution prove that the violation occurred, and to submit evidence on your behalf. The longer answer is that it’s very difficult to actually win — if the police officer contradicts what you say, the court will usually side with them, and most “legal” arguments posted on the Internet as good speeding ticket defenses are false.
The best course of action is usually to try to negotiate for a reduction to an offense that won’t carry the consequences you’re seeking to avoid, but if you absolutely need or want to attempt a defense, a traffic court attorney may be able to help you do so.