WHAT IS A TRAFFIC TICKET?
A traffic ticket is a citation or summons issued to a person who has violated a motor vehicle law. The citation or summons, which is issued by a police officer or other authorized representative of the government, is an order to appear in court before a judge (or magistrate). After being issued the citation or summons, the person accused of violating the law can remain free pending his/her need to appear in court.
WHY IS A TRAFFIC TICKET TREATED DIFFERENTLY THAN A CIVIL MATTER BY THE COURT?
Resolving a traffic ticket in court is handled differently than resolving a civil lawsuit because most traffic tickets are handled as criminal matters. The sentence in a criminal case can result in an order to pay a fine, a sentence of probation, or time in a jail. The sentence imposed in a criminal case is an obligation that a person has towards the "state" for violation of law; that is, it is a punishment for the act that was committed. The "state" could be a local township, municipality, city, county, state, or the federal government.
A civil matter typically results in an order awarding a money judgment to be paid by one party of a lawsuit to the other. The judgment is imposed to make the victim "whole" for the harm caused by the offender. A judgment in a civil matter does not include the imposition of a criminal sentence.
Thus the major difference is that in a criminal matter, a person who has violated a law can be ordered to forfeit his/her personal freedom since s/he has, in effect, caused a harm to the "state." The "payment" to the "state" is ordered as punishment for an act that the offender done.
PETTY OFFENSES, MISDEMEANORS AND FELONIES - WHAT CLASS AM I IN?
Crimes, such as violating traffic laws, are categorized into classes that are defined by their punishments.
- Petty Offenses - A petty offense is a sub-group of misdemeanor. Petty offenses typically may be tried before a magistrate in a summary proceeding as the matter typically is handled all on the date of the first appearance by the defendant in court). The defendant may be denied the right to a jury trial without violation of constitutional rights. Typically a traffic ticket is a petty offense, and it is usually punished with the imposition of a fine.
- Misdemeanors - Violation of a misdemeanor law can result in the imposition of punishment that is greater than that of a petty offense, but not as severe as a felony.
- Felony - A felony crime can result in imposition of greater punishment, such as jail sentence greater than one year, or a fine exceeding $1,000.
The class of a crime is important to consider since the governing substantive and procedural law are different between the classes. Petty offenses are provided the least number of protections, while felonies have numerous protections built into their treatment by the court system.
WHAT COULD HAPPEN IF A POLICE OFFICER WANTED ME TO SIGN A TRAFFIC TICKET AND I REFUSED?
The traffic ticket contains an actual notice to you of a pending court date at which you must appear. By signing the ticket, you are providing an acknowledgment of receipt of the "notice to appear." Since the officer is charging you with a violation of law, he could take you into custody. By signing the traffic ticket, you avoid being taken into custody at that time, and are "released on your own recognizance" pending the court date. It is better to sign the traffic ticket and go about your business pending the court date. By signing the traffic ticket, you remain free and retain the right to show up at the hearing to contest the issuance of the citation or summons.
A person is free to refuse to sign the traffic ticket; however, the police officer is free to place him/her under arrest and take him/her into custody.
WHAT SHOULD I DO AFTER BEING GIVEN A TRAFFIC TICKET?
In deciding what to do about a traffic ticket, you need of information such as:
- the potential punishment that you face for the charged violation of law
- any possible defenses, justifications or mitigating circumstances
- the impact that the violation of law will have upon your privilege to drive
- the impact that the violation of law will have upon your automobile insurance
- the amount of energy, time and cost involved in contesting the charged violation
- the need to retain an attorney to protect your rights
A good course of action is to cooperate with the police officer who issues the traffic ticket. You may speak with the officer concerning the issuance of the traffic ticket (attempt to "talk your way out of it"), but bear in mind that the statement you give to the police officer can be used against you in a court of law. After signing the traffic ticket, make notes about the circumstances that lead up to its issuance while the events are still fresh in your mind. Then begin to gather all the required information. You may ask an attorney for some advice.
If you learn that the proposed fine for an admission of guilt is affordable, and the impact upon your driving privilege inconsequential, you might decide to enter your guilty plea, pay the fine and continue your life. After weighing the consequences of an admission of guilt as opposed to the possibility of successfully defending against the charge, you might want to prepare to contest the traffic ticket in court. This decision must be based upon a careful analysis of the relevant facts and law governing the particular traffic ticket.
WHAT IS TRAFFIC SCHOOL?
Some states allow people to plead guilty to minor traffic offenses, pay the fine and then go to traffic school. After successfully completing the traffic school, the proof of completion is submitted and the violation is then removed from your driving record. Typically, only one minor traffic violation is allowed during a given time frame (generally a year to eighteen months) to be eligible for traffic school and removal of the violation from your driving record.
WHAT ARE "POINTS" AND HOW DO THEY AFFECT MY DRIVING "PRIVILEGE?"
Many states have a system that assigns a point value to each traffic offense. Greater offenses have greater point values. For example, failure to come to a full and complete stop at a stop sign might be 1 point, while speeding 50 miles per hour over the posted speed limit might be 3 points. Points can be accumulated over time.
If too many points are accumulated within a given time frame are accumulated, your driving "privilege" (i.e. license) can be suspended. For example, Speed Racer has a habit of driving too fast and he gets 6 points in a seven month time frame. Since Speed Racer accumulated more than the allowable number of points in the given time frame, his driving "privilege" is suspended. Because driving is considered a "privilege" as opposed to a "right," the privilege can be taken away. The next time Speed Racer goes out and gets stopped for speeding, in addition to the citation for speeding, he will also get a citation for driving under a suspended license - one petty offense and one misdemeanor.
WHY DO INSURANCE COMPANIES RAISE THE PREMIUM FOR HAVING POINTS ON YOUR RECORD?
Insurance rates are based on statistics and probabilities. Statistics show that the probability of a person getting into an accident increases with the number of traffic violations. The increased probability of an accident raises the risk of loss to the insurance company. The greater the risk, the higher the probability for loss, and thus the higher the insurance premium.