Traffic violations range in seriousness, and the legal processes for dealing with traffic-related offenses vary by state. However, in most states, traffic violations fall into one of three general categories: infractions, misdemeanors, and felonies. The process for resolving a traffic offense and the potential penalties for a conviction typically depend on how the offense is categorized and the specific law the person violated.
Traffic infractions. Generally, when you get a traffic ticket, it’s going to be an infraction. Traffic infractions (sometimes called “civil offenses” or “civil violations”) are the least serious type of traffic offense. In many states, a traffic infraction is not considered a crime.
Infraction legal process. A motorist typically has several options for dealing with a traffic infraction. The motorist can pay the ticket by mail or online, go to traffic court and plead guilty, or plead not guilty and request a traffic court trial. (Generally, only cases involving traffic infractions are dealt with in traffic court.) In many jurisdictions, eligible drivers also have the option of doing traffic school for a ticket.
Infraction penalties. A traffic infraction conviction generally results in a fine and demerit points going on the person’s driving record. But a driver can avoid the points—and sometimes the fine—by completing traffic school. Fines typically range from about $50 to $500, depending on the offense and jurisdiction. In most states, jail time isn’t possible for an infraction.
Misdemeanor traffic offenses. More serious traffic offenses like driving under the influence and reckless driving are usually misdemeanors. And, in many states, offenses that would normally be infractions are categorized as misdemeanors when certain aggravating factors are present. For example, some states make speeding a misdemeanor when a motorist breaks the speed limit by an excessive amount. Many states also upgrade violations that would normally be infractions to misdemeanors when the violation resulted in an accident.
Misdemeanor legal process. Misdemeanors are considered crimes and are handled in criminal court. Criminal court processes vary somewhat by state. But the basics are largely the same in all jurisdictions.
Criminal defendants have certain constitutional rights, such as the right to an attorney—which includes the right to court-appointed counsel if the defendant can’t afford to hire an attorney. In most situations, a criminal defendant also has the right to a jury trial, though most misdemeanor cases are resolved through plea bargaining.
If the jury finds the defendant guilty, the judge decides the appropriate sentence within the range provided by law. Or if the defendant admits guilt pursuant to a plea agreement, the judge sentences the defendant consistent with terms of that agreement.
Misdemeanor penalties. In most states, a misdemeanor can result in up to a year in jail and a maximum $1,000 fine (additional fees and assessments can substantially increase the actual cost). However, the majority of misdemeanor convictions result in only a few days, if any time, in jail.
Traffic-related misdemeanors can also have license-related penalties, such as traffic violation points and loss of driving privileges. For instance, the consequences of a DUI conviction almost always include license suspension or revocation.
Felony traffic offenses. Only the most serious traffic-related offenses are felonies. For example, some states make a DUI a felony if the driver caused injuries to another person or has two or more prior DUI convictions. Also, vehicular homicide and manslaughter are normally classified as felonies.
Felony legal process. The legal process for felonies is basically the same as that for misdemeanors. Felonies are prosecuted in criminal court and a felony defendant generally has the same constitutional rights as a defendant accused of committing a misdemeanor. However, whereas misdemeanor defendants are often released from jail with just a promise to appear in court, felony defendants normally can’t get out of custody without posting a substantial bail amount.
Felony penalties. Felony sentencing is harsh. Motorists who are convicted of a felony might face thousands of dollars in fines and multiple years in prison. However, the specific sentence a felony defendant will receive depends on a number of factors, including the circumstances of the current offense and the defendant’s criminal record.
Felony traffic-related convictions almost always result in a substantial license suspension or revocation. The defendant may even face lifetime revocation. A felony traffic conviction also typically puts points on the defendant’s driving record.