Traffic tickets can be easy to forget, as there is no email, text, or convenient deadline reminder for traffic citations. Instead, the reminder you may get for an unpaid ticket is a warrant for your arrest.
Law enforcement and district courts take unpaid traffic tickets seriously, and an arrest on your record is a significant problem. So, what can happen if you forget to resolve a ticket? Besides a possible arrest from a warrant, you can also face other penalties:
- Increased fines and late fees
- Driver's license suspension
- Vehicle impoundment
You do not want to spend time in jail because of an unresolved speeding ticket, parking ticket, or other infraction. Read on to learn more about how to avoid this and other penalties.
Do Traffic Tickets Expire?
Traffic tickets do not expire. Instead, your traffic ticket information will give you a deadline to either:
If you fail to act in this timeframe the issue does not just go away or incur additional fees. Consequences get much more serious. Your state's traffic ticket laws have specific information on the penalties for unpaid tickets.
In general, the unpaid ticket will stay on your record indefinitely until you act on it. If you never show up in court to handle the ticket or pay the fine, a judge could issue a bench warrant for your arrest. The bench refers to the bench inside the courtroom where you must appear to deal with the ticket.
Arrest Warrants for Unpaid Tickets
Arrest warrants never expire until you "pay the fine or do the time." 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 10 years later.
If this happens, it means there is a court order that mandates your arrest and court appearance to face your unpaid citation.
Saying you did not know about the ticket or forgot about the citation is not considered a real defense by most judges. 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.
After your arrest, the judge may require a cash bond. This means you must pay the full bail amount in cash to get out of jail. This is refundable if you comply but is forfeited if you fail to appear before the judge. The court will also likely issue another arrest warrant.
The judge may be willing to work with you and extend options for resolving your ticket and warrant. These can include:
- Ordering community service in place of the fine
- Lowering the fine in some instances of financial hardship
- Offering traffic school or defensive driving classes
- Allowing a payment plan instead of paying the fine in full
What Is a Traffic Warrant?
In some jurisdictions and situations, the court may issue a traffic warrant instead of a bench warrant. A traffic warrant is a more targeted type of warrant issued specifically for unresolved traffic violations. This type of warrant authorizes law enforcement officers to apprehend individuals with outstanding traffic citations and bring them before the court.
This can occur if you fail to respond to a traffic citation by either paying the fine or making the required traffic court appearance.
The best way to avoid any type of warrant because of a traffic offense is to follow the instructions on the citation. You can also seek legal advice or help from a lawyer if needed.
Checking for Outstanding Tickets or Warrants
You can check your state's Department of Transportation website for a search option. You can also look into your driving record online. By searching your name and information, you can often find any outstanding issues that may cause more significant problems.
All 50 states and Washington, D.C. have a Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) or equivalent agency, 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. What the officer does next depends on the specific circumstances and the jurisdiction. They may inform you about any outstanding issues or tickets and let you go with an additional citation or a warning, or they may arrest you and force you to deal with the unpaid ticket.
A routine traffic stop isn't the only incident that can reveal an outstanding ticket or warrant on your record. Other activities that can disclose this include:
Watch Out for Ticket and Warrant Scams
Beware of fake law firms and collection agencies running scams to collect fines from people. It pays to:
- Investigate any letter or claim that you have an outstanding ticket before paying
- Call the district court that issued the ticket
- Verify the company calling you or sending you letters, which you can do by looking up the company's official contact information and reaching out to them directly
- Ask questions if you suspect a scam
Never provide any personal, identifying, or financial information without first verifying the legitimacy of the agency.
Forgot a Ticket? Find Out More From an Attorney
You have legal options, even if you forgot to pay a traffic ticket. A traffic ticket attorney in your area may be able to negotiate fines and late fees and resolve an outstanding warrant. If you know you have defaulted on a citation, you shouldn't have to worry about going to jail as a result.
An experienced, local attorney can represent your interests, protect your rights, and help you make your traffic case right with the courts.