Some serious traffic offenses are misdemeanors or even felonies. These types of traffic violations can result in significant fines, loss of driving privileges, and even jail time. Unlike traffic infractions, misdemeanors and felonies go on your criminal record. The repercussions of this can be lasting and substantially impact your life.
Most traffic offenses are infractions — including traffic tickets for mechanical and most moving violations. Infractions are administrative violations that don't entail penalties as serious as misdemeanors or felonies.
In most states, a traffic violation becomes a misdemeanor or felony if it:
- Causes injury to a person or destruction of property
- Creates a real threat of injury to a person or destruction of property
Traffic Felonies and Misdemeanors: Overview
For example, running a red light or stop sign may be a misdemeanor but becomes a felony if the driver maliciously hits another vehicle in the intersection. The charge classification becomes even more serious if an occupant of that vehicle dies. In addition, some traffic offenses are misdemeanors or felonies from the outset. These include:
- Driving with a revoked license
- Leaving the scene of an accident (hit and run)
- Reckless driving
Motorists accused of these more serious traffic violations are entitled to all constitutional protections for criminal defendants. These protections include the right to a court-appointed attorney and a jury trial.
The criminal justice system doesn't have the capacity to treat every minor breach of the law with a full criminal trial. Therefore, state laws often treat less egregious traffic violations as misdemeanors. Most minor traffic offenses are considered even less severe infractions.
Misdemeanors are less serious crimes, generally punishable by a fine or jail time of less than one year. Although precise classifications vary by state, common examples of misdemeanor traffic violations include:
For many of these violations, law enforcement will take you into custody. You then must post a bail bond to secure your release from jail before your court date. This is the same process as nontraffic criminal offenses.
Jail sentences for misdemeanor convictions are less severe than sentences for felony convictions. Other potential consequences of misdemeanor convictions are also generally less harsh.
For example, a person with a misdemeanor conviction can still serve on a jury, practice their profession, and vote.
Felonies are typically the most serious crimes in any criminal law system. Felony traffic offenses are no exception. A felony is any crime punishable by more than one year in prison or death. This means that a crime with a sentence of only a fine or confinement in the local jail for a short period is not a felony.
Sometimes, the legal classification of the offense may not carry the felony label, but the penalties imposed make it clear the courts are treating it with the seriousness associated with felonies.
State codes may label a crime a gross or aggravated misdemeanor but provide a sentence of more than one year in the state penitentiary system, essentially treating the misdemeanor as a felony. Some examples of this include:
A person convicted of a felony may have more restrictions on their rights than someone convicted of a lesser crime. In addition to longer prison sentences in harsher settings, felons cannot serve on juries in many jurisdictions. They may also lose their right to vote or to practice certain professions, such as law and teaching.
Some states prohibit felons from owning guns or serving in the military. Further, some states have a three-strikes statute, which provides that someone with two felony convictions may be sentenced to life in prison if the courts convict them of a third.
Felony Traffic Violations and Your Criminal Record
The long-term impact of a felony can have lasting effects. This type of charge on your criminal record can affect employment opportunities, housing applications, and various aspects of daily life.
A felony conviction typically stays on your criminal record permanently unless you take specific action to have it expunged or sealed. Expungement is a legal process allowing you to have your criminal record erased or sealed, removing the conviction from public view.
Expungement and record-sealing laws vary by state, and not all felonies are eligible.
Clearing a traffic felony charge from your criminal record is no different. Most jurisdictions have waiting periods before you can apply for expungement. This can be a long and complicated process with several steps, including filing a petition and attending a hearing.
Working with a criminal defense attorney with experience in your state's expungement process can be instrumental. They can provide guidance based on your specific circumstances and present a strong case to the judge. Not all expungement requests are successful. An attorney's help can significantly improve the chances of the judge granting your request.
How Do Serious Traffic Offenses Affect My Driving Record?
Besides going on your criminal record, felony and misdemeanor traffic offenses also impact your driving record. The specifics depend on the nature of your offense and state traffic laws. Some common ways these charges affect your driving privileges include:
Misdemeanor and Felony Traffic Offenses: Get Legal Advice
Taking traffic charges as seriously as any other criminal charges is important. This is especially true when a traffic offense rises to the level of a misdemeanor or felony. These charges carry the potential for harsh consequences.
If you are facing a misdemeanor or felony traffic crime, the best place to start is to speak with a criminal defense attorney in your area. An experienced attorney may be able to plead down a serious traffic offense from a felony to a misdemeanor (or a misdemeanor down to an infraction). This can minimize punishment and the impact of the charge on your daily life, including saving you from jail time or a suspended license.