What are the differences between traffic tickets and other crimes?
Traffic tickets usually lead to less severe consequences than regular crimes. A driver rarely faces jail time. Traffic court uses less formal procedures, and a driver often does not have a right to a jury trial. The standard of proof sometimes is more lenient than in a criminal case. A state that classifies a traffic violation as a civil offense may require the prosecution to prove the offense only by clear and convincing evidence or a preponderance of the evidence, rather than beyond a reasonable doubt. However, a state that considers a traffic violation to be a criminal offense will use the higher standard of beyond a reasonable doubt.
What are the differences among infractions, misdemeanors, and felonies?
Most ordinary traffic tickets are infractions, which means that you may pay a fine and related assessments but will not go to jail. If your ticket is classified as a misdemeanor, you may face more significant fines and possibly up to a year in jail. Traffic tickets that are classified as felonies are extremely rare. These may arise when a driver caused an accident that resulted in death or serious injury, or when a driver has a long list of previous offenses. A felony can result in imprisonment of more than one year, as well as even greater fines.
Is there any downside to just paying a ticket?
Possibly. Paying a ticket is similar to pleading guilty in a criminal case. If you pay the ticket rather than contesting it, the conviction will stay on your driving record for the period provided by state law. You also may have points added to your license, which can put you at risk of increased insurance premiums and a license suspension if you accumulate too many points. If you have no real defense and a clean record, however, paying the ticket may be the right path to take.
Can I try to pay the officer to get out of a ticket?
Absolutely not. This is generally known as the crime of bribery, which can result in much more serious consequences than a traffic ticket. You should not panic or overreact during a police stop. If you want to fight your ticket, you have legal options for doing that.
What if I cannot pay a traffic ticket?
You should not just ignore the ticket. Failing to pay a traffic ticket can result in additional late fees and potentially put your license at risk. In some cases, a judge might even issue a warrant for the arrest of a driver. If you are eligible for traffic school, you can use this option as an alternative to paying the fine, assuming that you live in a state that allows traffic school to cancel out a fine. Or you can ask the judge if you can get a fine reduction, set up a payment plan, or do community service instead of the fine.
How many points can I get on my license before it is suspended?
This will depend on the points system in your state and the lookback period that it uses. Points stay on a driver’s record for one to three years in most states, after which they are removed and no longer have an impact on their record. Points are assigned to different violations in different quantities, with more serious violations resulting in a greater number of points. You likely will get a warning or a lesser penalty before facing a license suspension. Most states allow drivers to take a traffic school course instead of adding points to their record, although there is a limit on how often a driver can use this option. You should consult the DMV website in your state to find out more about its specific points system.
How long do I need to wait for a decision in a traffic ticket case?
Usually, a judge will make their decision immediately after hearing the case, but this does not always happen. If you did not consent to a delay in the judge making their decision, you may have a basis for an appeal. Sometimes a driver will receive the decision in the mail, which means that it might have been lost in the mail if they do not receive it. You will need to file an appeal within a short time of the decision, typically about 30 days, so you should follow up with the court every few weeks to make sure that the decision has not been mailed.
What if someone else was driving my car, but I received the ticket for a violation?
If a friend or family member was driving your car at the time, and you did not authorize them to use your vehicle, you may not understand why you are being billed for a ticket. If you do not pay the ticket, however, a collection agency may start pursuing you, and you may need to pay additional fees and late charges. You may be able to avoid paying the ticket if you contact the agency that issued the ticket. Unless you have a history of unpaid tickets, you may be able to convince the agency to let it go. However, some states have laws that make the owner of a car responsible for paying a ticket related to certain types of violations, such as red light camera tickets. The bottom line is that you should not ignore a ticket, since it could affect your license and registration if it goes unpaid for a long time.
Do police officers need to meet quotas in issuing tickets?
This is not literally true. Like any other employee, though, a police officer will be evaluated according to their performance. If they never make a stop or issue a ticket, their superiors may question whether they are doing their job. The number of citations issued by a certain officer in a certain period has no impact on whether a citation is valid and should not affect whether you choose to fight your case.
What if the officer stopped me because of my race?
Sometimes a driver will suspect that the officer pulled them over because of racial profiling. If the officer has a reasonable suspicion that a driver is committing a traffic violation or a crime, they have a constitutional right to pull over that driver. However, this can serve as a pretext for making a driver uncomfortable so that they leave the area or for harassing a driver whom the officer has a personal reason to dislike. If an officer stops a driver based on their race, the driver may have a constitutional claim under the Equal Protection Clause. You probably should not pursue this complex type of case on your own, and most traffic ticket attorneys will not want to handle it. Social justice organizations like the ACLU may be interested in assisting you.
How does radar track my speed, and how is laser detection different?
Radar involves sending out radio waves and listening to how their frequency changes when they strike an object, such as a vehicle. This is an effective speed tracking device because the speed of the vehicle or other object affects the change in frequency. By contrast, laser detection measures the speed of a vehicle by sending out laser light and measuring the distance from the laser gun to the vehicle over time. The change in the distance provides a way to calculate the speed of the vehicle. When a police officer holds a gun toward a vehicle’s license plate, they must make sure to hold it steady to get an accurate reading.
Can I continue to drive when my license is suspended if I need to get to work or school?
In some cases, a driver may be able to get a restricted license or hardship license, which allows them to drive during the period of the suspension for limited, essential purposes, such as going to work or school. If you do not get a hardship license, you should do your best to get rides from other people or use public transportation. Driving while your license is suspended if you do not have a hardship license is an additional, more serious violation, which can lead to more substantial fines and even jail time. It is not worth the risk.
When should I hire a lawyer for a traffic ticket?
You may want to hire a lawyer if you are at risk of losing your license or facing jail time. A lawyer also may be helpful if you are considering fighting a ticket on the basis of a novel or complex legal argument. Otherwise, traffic law is not especially complex, and the stakes are not usually high, so a driver probably can handle the process on their own without undertaking this additional expense.