Most traffic tickets are issued for traffic offenses called "infractions" -- including tickets for mechanical violations and most non-dangerous moving violations. Infractions do not usually carry the same stigma and penalties as serious criminal offenses. But certain traffic-related offenses are categorized as "misdemeanors" or even "felonies", and can result in more significant fines, loss of driving privileges, or even imprisonment.
Generally speaking, in most states, a traffic violation becomes a misdemeanor or felony if it:
- Causes injury to a person or destruction of property, or
- Creates a real threat of injury to a person or destruction of property.
Traffic Felonies and Misdemeanors: Overview
Going through a red light may be a misdemeanor in one state, for instance, but it becomes a felony if the driver maliciously hits another vehicle in the intersection and an occupant of that vehicle dies. In addition, some traffic offenses are defined as misdemeanors or felonies from the outset, such as driving with a revoked license, leaving the scene of an accident, or reckless driving.
People accused of these more-serious traffic violations are entitled to all constitutional protections provided to criminal defendants, including the right to a court-appointed attorney and a jury trial.
The criminal justice system would quickly be overwhelmed if every minor breach of the law required a full criminal trial. Therefore, less egregious traffic violations are often treated as misdemeanors (although many minor traffic offenses are considered even less severe "infractions"). Misdemeanors are less serious crimes, generally punishable by a fine or incarceration in the county jail for less than one year. Although precise classifications vary on a state-by-state basis, common examples of traffic misdemeanors include:
For many of these violations, the driver will be taken into custody and required to post a bail bond, just as he or she would for non-traffic crimes. Incarceration sentences for misdemeanor convictions are less severe than sentences for felony convictions, and other potential consequences of misdemeanor convictions are also generally less harsh. For example, a person with a misdemeanor conviction on his or her record may, for instance, still be able to serve on a jury, practice his or her profession, and vote.
Felonies are typically the most serious crimes in any system of criminal law, and felony traffic offenses are no exception. A standard definition of a felony is any crime punishable by more than one year in prison or by death. This means that a crime that has a sentence of only a fine or confinement in the local jail for a short period of time is not a felony. Often the offense itself is not labeled as a felony, but the punishment tells the public that the offense is a felony.
On the other hand, state codes may label a crime a "gross" or "aggravated" misdemeanor but provide for a sentence of more than one year in the state penitentiary system, thereby ensuring that the so-called misdemeanor is treated as a felony in many respects. Examples of felony traffic offenses include repeat DUI/DWI convictions, certain "hit and run" offenses, and vehicular homicide.
A person convicted of a felony may have more restrictions on his or her rights than a person convicted of a lesser crime. In addition to longer prison sentences in harsher settings, in many jurisdictions felons cannot serve on juries. Often times, they also lose their right to vote or to practice certain professions, such as law and teaching. Felons may be prohibited from owning guns or serving in the military. And some states have a "three strikes, you're out" statute, which provides that a person who already has been convicted of two felonies may be sentenced to life in prison if he or she is convicted of a third.
Misdemeanor and Felony Traffic Offenses: Get Help Now
Traffic charges must be taken as seriously as any other criminal charges, especially when a traffic offense rises to the level of a misdemeanor or felony, which carry the potential for harsh consequences. If you have been charged with a traffic-related misdemeanor or felony, the best place to start is to speak with an experienced traffic ticket attorney in your area, who in some cases may be able to "plead down" a serious traffic offense from a felony to a misdemeanor (or a misdemeanor down to an infraction), in order to best minimize punishment for the offense.