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Traffic Ticket Basics

As a driver, you will likely receive a traffic ticket at some point during your life. Getting ticketed can feel less overwhelming if you understand the basics of traffic citations and know what to expect.

Most traffic tickets are infraction offenses. Traffic infractions are less severe than misdemeanor or felony crimes. Infractions usually require you to pay a fine and don't become a part of your criminal record. However, some traffic tickets can have more severe consequences.

FindLaw's Traffic Ticket Basics section provides comprehensive information on several legal aspects of traffic violations and citations. Details provided in linked sections include:

  • An overview of infractions that often result in traffic tickets
  • How to avoid traffic tickets
  • The point system used in traffic offenses
  • More serious traffic offenses that can result in a misdemeanor or felony charge

Read on to learn the basics of traffic tickets. Reference the linked material at the end of this article for more specific information.

Types of Traffic Offenses and Violations

The primary purpose of traffic violation regulations is to deter unsafe driving and educate and reform bad drivers. Most traffic violations don't require criminal intent, which means the only proof necessary is that the person committed the prohibited act. This is known as strict liability.

Some examples:

  • Driving over the speed limit
  • Rolling through a stop sign
  • Failure to use a turn signal
  • Unpaid parking meters
  • Parking in a no-parking zone

There are two types of traffic offenses: moving and non-moving violations. A moving violation occurs when the car is in motion, like speeding or running a red light. A non-moving violation happens when a motor vehicle isn't in motion. Non-moving violations are usually issued for illegal parking or faulty vehicle equipment.

Serious Traffic Offenses

While most traffic offenses are classified as infractions, some can be more serious in certain situations. Generally, a traffic offense becomes more acute than an infraction if it injures another person or causes property damage. It can also be a more serious offense if the violation creates a real threat of injury or property damage.

Traffic offenses are regulated at the state level. This means each state will have its own laws for what constitutes an infraction and what is a more serious traffic offense.

Some common examples of misdemeanor traffic offenses include driving without a valid driver's license and driving without insurance. A misdemeanor traffic violation can result in fines and up to a year of jail time.

Some felony traffic offense examples include multiple DUIs and vehicular homicide. These types of charges are tried in criminal court. A felony is punishable by fines and a prison sentence of at least one year. Other penalties (like community service) can also be applied. If you are charged with a felony traffic offense, you have the right to a court-appointed attorney, if you cannot afford one, and to a jury trial.

A felony conviction can also lead to various restrictions on individual rights. For example, felons can't serve on a jury, buy a gun, or serve in the military.

Fighting a Traffic Ticket

Simply paying the fine is the fastest way to settle a traffic ticket. However, you have the option to challenge your ticket if you believe it was issued incorrectly.

If you choose to go this route, you typically have two choices:

  • Plead "not guilty," and contest the ticket in traffic court
  • Opt for a "no contest" plea, which doesn't admit guilt but also doesn't contest the charges

In most cases, pleading “no contest" still requires that you pay the fine. Because it doesn't require admitting any guilt, it can help protect you in civil matters.

If you choose to plead not guilty, you'll likely need to appear in person on your scheduled court date and present your case to the judge. You are not required to have an attorney present for your court appearance. However, depending on the complexity of your charge, it may be beneficial to have an attorney represent you through the process.

Some jurisdictions offer the option of attending traffic school as an alternative to fighting the ticket in court. Completing a traffic school course may lead to the dismissal of the ticket or a reduction in penalties.

Traffic Tickets and Insurance Rates

Traffic citations impact more than just your bank account and driving privileges. They can also affect your auto insurance, typically in the form of higher premiums. For minor moving violations, the change may be relatively small. More severe violations often lead to loftier increases.

When you receive a traffic ticket, your insurance company may view you as a higher-risk driver. They often raise your insurance rate as a result. The severity of the violation often influences the amount of the increase.

Non-moving violations, like parking tickets or expired vehicle registration, typically don't affect insurance rates.

Besides just rate increases, traffic tickets can affect your insurance in other ways:

  • Surcharge points: Most states use a points system in which certain violations add points to your driving record. Accumulating these points can lead to higher insurance rates.
  • Non-renewal or cancellation: Repeated or severe violations can lead your insurance company to discontinue your policy when it expires. They can also cancel your policy during its term.
  • SR-22 requirement: Some insurance companies require an SR-22 certificate after DUI or reckless driving offenses. An SR-22 is a form that certifies you have the required amount of liability insurance. It often results in substantially higher insurance rates.

The impact of a traffic ticket on your insurance rates can vary depending on your insurer, where you live, the type of violation, and your driving history.

Hiring a Lawyer

A simple traffic ticket usually doesn't require the assistance of a lawyer. However, if your situation is complicated, or you have questions about traffic violations, it is best to contact a traffic ticket attorney. An attorney experienced with the traffic laws and vehicle codes in your area can assess your citation to ensure the police officer applied the law correctly. They can also help you contest the ticket if necessary.

If you've been charged with a more serious traffic violation, it is in your best interest to contact a criminal defense attorney.

Learn About Traffic Ticket Basics

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  • Complex traffic tickets usually require a lawyer
  • Experienced lawyers can seek to reduce or eliminate penalties
  • A lawyer can help you keep your license

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