An infraction, sometimes called a petty offense, is a violation of an administrative regulation, an ordinance, a municipal code, or, in some jurisdictions, a state or local traffic rule.
In most states, an infraction is not considered a criminal offense and is rarely punishable by incarceration. Instead, such jurisdictions treat infractions as purely civil offenses. Even in jurisdictions that treat infractions as criminal offenses, incarceration is not usually contemplated as a reasonable form of punishment, and in those rare cases where it is, confinement is limited to serving time in a local jail.
Like misdemeanors, infractions are often defined in very broad language. For example, Arizona defines them 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 have been cited for an infraction, which most likely resulted in a fine or some other administrative penalty. Some common infractions include:
- Minor traffic violations in some states (although serious violations can be charged as misdemeanors and felonies)
- Boating violations
- Fishing without a license
- Building permit violations
- Operating a business without a proper license
- Drinking in public
- Walking an unleashed dog
- Campsite violations
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 felonies. 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 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 for appearing in court
- Instructions for payment of the fine
Unlike misdemeanor or felony crimes, 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. So, for example, there is no constitutional right to a jury trial (although some states may provide this right by statute), and those facing infractions do not have the right to free legal counsel (although anyone can hire an attorney at their own expense).
Even if people do not have certain rights in the infraction process, they are still afforded the right of due process; there is a right to a hearing before a judge, the right to present evidence, and the right to call and question witnesses, including the police officer or 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 an Attorney
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 to a criminal defense attorney to learn the possible impact infractions can have on your record.