Traffic tickets can be easy to forget – after all, there is no email reminder, text reminder, or convenient deadline reminder for paper tickets. Instead, the reminder some people may get is an arrest for an unintentionally unpaid ticket.
Law enforcement and district courts take unpaid tickets seriously, and an arrest on your record is a significant problem. So, what happens when you accidentally forget about a traffic ticket for years?
Do Traffic Tickets Expire?
Traffic tickets do not expire. Instead, your traffic ticket information will give you a deadline to:
If you fail to act in this timeframe the issue does not just go away or add on late fees. In fact, the issue usually gets much more serious. Your state's traffic ticket laws have specific information on the penalties for unpaid tickets.
Generally, the unpaid ticket will stay on your record forever until you act on it. If you never show up in court to handle the ticket, a judge could issue a “bench warrant" for your arrest. The “bench" refers to the bench inside the courtroom where you need to appear to deal with the ticket.
Arrest Warrants for Unpaid Tickets
Arrest warrants never expire until you “do the time or pay the fine." The court can issue a warrant years after you were first ticketed. There is no statute of limitations or set date range by which the courts must issue an arrest warrant. Any county can turn a legal issue into a bench warrant at any time – even ten years later.
Saying you did not know about the ticket or forgot about the ticket is not a real defense in the judge's eyes, and they will likely charge you late fees or set other punishments. Fees can reach thousands of dollars or you may need to serve jail time.
Unsure About Outstanding Tickets or Warrants?
You can check your state's Department of Transportation website for a search option or look into your own driving record online. By searching your name and information, you can often find any outstanding issues that may come back to cause larger problems.
Keep in mind the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) spans all 50 states so your tickets or warrants can easily follow you across state lines. Past tickets can also suddenly require action as databases share or update information from state to state.
If you are pulled over in the future, a police officer will run your information and may let you know about any outstanding issues or tickets. They also may not see the information or choose not to tell you. Or, they may arrest you so that you are forced to deal with the unpaid ticket.
It is important to keep in mind that background checks, being pulled over again, joining the military, other court dates, or other legal-related incidents do not always reveal if you have a ticket or warrant still on record.
Watch Out for Ticket and Warrant Scams
There are fake law firms and collections agencies running scams to collect fines from people. It pays to:
- Investigate any letter or claim that you have an outstanding ticket;
- Call the district court where the ticket was issued;
- Verify the company calling you or sending you letters; and
- Ask questions if you suspect a scam.
You Have Rights Even If You Forgot a Ticket
If you feel an arrest, ticket, warrant, or other incident is out of line, you can always choose to fight back. There have been cases of mistaken identity or tickets being issued to the wrong person. There is also a margin of human error that has been known to happen at DMV or district court offices.
An attorney in your district may be able to help lower the fines and late fees you need to pay, work to keep you out of jail, or resolve the issues with a payment plan. Many people mean well and just forget about unpaid tickets. An attorney can represent your interests and help you make things right with the courts.