In most states, an infraction is not considered a criminal offense and is rarely punishable by a jail sentence. Instead, such jurisdictions treat infractions as purely civil offenses. Even in jurisdictions that treat infractions as criminal charges, a prison sentence is not usually considered a reasonable punishment. In rare criminal cases where it is, confinement is limited to serving time in local county jail.

An infraction or petty offense is a violation of an administrative regulation, an ordinance, a penal code, or, in some jurisdictions, a state or local traffic rule.

Like misdemeanors, infractions are often defined in very broad language. For example, Arizona defines infractions as offenses "without either designation as a felony or a misdemeanor or specification of the classification or the penalty is a petty offense."

Common Examples of Infractions

It is not uncommon for a person to be cited for an infraction. Being charged with an infraction usually results in a fine, community service, a traffic ticket, driver's license suspension, or points on your driving record. Some common infractions include:

Minor traffic violations (In some states, such as Texas, a serious traffic offense can turn into a criminal conviction, like a misdemeanor offense or felony charge)

  • Littering
  • Boating violations
  • Fishing without a license
  • Building permit violations
  • Operating a business without a proper license
  • Jaywalking
  • Drinking in public
  • Walking an unleashed dog
  • Campsite violations
  • Driving While Intoxicated (DWI)
  • Disorderly conduct

While many states and the federal government still have fairly strict drug laws, there have been efforts to classify certain drug offenses as infractions instead of misdemeanors or felony convictions. For example, possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana is considered a civil offense in Maryland and is punishable by a fine of up to $100 (but no jail time or other penalties). This type of violation is not included in a person's criminal record in Maryland or other states with similar criminal laws.

How Does the Infraction Process Work?

Typically, the process starts with the issuance of a citation. This may also be referred to as a notice of violation or notice to appear. The citation will often include:

  • A citation number (this is sometimes also the case number)
  • A description of the violation(s) and category of offense
  • The relevant state law or city code
  • The name of the issuing agency and officer
  • The location of the courthouse
  • Deadlines for payment of the fine or appearance in court
  • Instructions for payment of the fine

Unlike a misdemeanor charge or felony crime, which have all the protections of the criminal justice system, defendants have fewer rights in the infraction process because they are not facing a serious deprivation of liberty. For example, there is no constitutional right to a jury trial, although some states may provide this right by statute. In addition, those facing infractions do not have the right to free legal counsel.

Even if people do not have certain rights in the infraction process, they are still afforded the right of due process. These rights include the right to a hearing before a judge, the right to present evidence, and the right to call and question witnesses, including the law enforcement official that issued the citation. Additionally, there is also a right to appeal the judge's finding in the case and try to reverse any fine imposed.

Charged With an Infraction? Contact a Criminal Defense Lawyer

Although infractions are among the most minor of offenses, there can sometimes be unforeseen, long-term consequences. If you have questions about infractions, or you have been charged with one, you may want to speak with the law office of a criminal defense attorney for legal advice or legal representation.

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