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Traffic Ticket Frequently Asked Questions

What is a traffic ticket?

Traffic Tickets (also known as "Citations") are violations of traffic law and are classified as infractions, misdemeanors or even felonies.

What is the difference between infractions, misdemeanors, and felonies?

An infraction is a rather minor, "garden variety" violation of the traffic law. These are usually known as "strict-liability traffic offenses" - meaning the only proof the ticketing officer must show is that the offense was actually committed. Double-parking, parking at an expired traffic meter, failure to properly signal, having a burned out headlight or brake light, not being "buckled up" are all very common infractions. Usually, with an infraction, the most that can happen is you pay a fine and that's that.

If it's a non-moving violation, points probably won't be assessed, and your insurance rates won't suffer. If it's a moving infraction - such as speeding but below a certain level, the fines can be sometimes steep, you may be assessed points, and your insurance rates may rise as a consequence.

A misdemeanor is a more serious violation of the law, punishable by a year or less in prison and fines. Some examples of traffic misdemeanors would be failing to stop at the scene of an accident, driving without a valid license or insurance, first time DUI / DWI offenses, and reckless driving.

A felony traffic violation is a very serious offense - punishable by more than a year in jail and some very substantial fines. Vehicular homicide while driving drunk is one example. Multiple DWI/DUI's are another. Failure to submit to a breathalyzer test is now a felony in many jurisdictions.

Misdemeanors and felonies violations are usually invoked when the driver causes or creates a real threat of injury to a person or destruction of property.

What exactly are points?

The Point System is simple in theory. Most every moving traffic violation is assigned a numerical value, from 1 to 12, depending on the severity of the offense. If convicted of the violation, the judge will send of record of the offense to the State's Motor Vehicle Department. The DMV will then assign the mandated amounts of points to your driving record. If you accumulate too many points over a specific period of time, your driver's license could be suspended or even revoked.

Insurance companies routinely check the number of points their policyholders have on their record. You can rest assured that before being issued your policy, your driving record will be checked. As with everything else in life, if you don't have any convictions or points on your record, you'll get the better-preferred rates, perhaps even a good driver's discount. If you have multiple moving violations, the insurance company will view you as a higher risk and charge you accordingly.  If you have some serious violations on your record, (DUI, reckless driving, vehicular homicide) insurance companies would rather not insure you at all. But since the law mandates compulsory insurance, there is what is termed an "assigned risk" pool.  All these violators are placed in this "pool" and every insurance company must provide a certain amount of them with insurance. The risk is spread out among the various companies - hence the term "pooling the assigned risk."  If you're in such a pool, be advised that your rates will in all probability be very high.

It's to your advantage to avoid getting points on your record. If you do receive a moving violation, by all means, consult with your attorney. Paying a fine isn't pleasant - but it's usually only a one time deal. Paying a fine and having to pay higher insurance rates for years to come is a lot less desirable.

Is driving a right?

No. Under the law, driving is a privilege, not a right. Even though this theory is somewhat suspect (after all, your taxes pay for the highways and agencies that govern the driving system) it's still the law. The state can deny you a license for any legal reason, even for violations that have nothing to do with driving - such as drug convictions or failure to pay child support.

Can I demand a trial by jury for traffic violations?

With infractions, you usually don't have the right to a trial by jury. It's a simple administrative process - and in many cases, you can satisfy the court by mailing in your fine - or even paying it online in some places. With misdemeanors and felonies, you have all your Constitution rights intact - including the right of having a court-appointed attorney and a trial by jury. This is mainly because of the seriousness of the offense, being placed under arrest with the possible loss of your freedom upon conviction.

Are traffic laws the same in each state?

No, they vary and differ from state to state. What may be a misdemeanor in Nebraska might qualify for a felony conviction in New York. What isn't even considered an infraction in many states is in others. For example, if you're driving in Nebraska under a daytime light rain with your windshield wipers on, you don't have to consider turning on your headlights. In New York, not having your headlights on when the windshield wipers are moving - no matter the time of day or light conditions - will cost you a traffic ticket.

What is the purpose of traffic tickets and fines?

The stated purpose is to make sure the roads and highways are safe for all drivers, and traffic laws and fines are a proven and effective method to accomplish this goal. Very few people would argue against that. Most people do obey the traffic laws, even when they are probably not going to be caught violating them. However, those who do tend to ignore the rules of the road are usually the ones that pose the greatest risk to public safety and likewise amass the greatest number tickets. However, as with most things government does - money is a very big factor.

Municipalities and states derive a very large portion of their budget from these fines. Since any reasonable doubt usually falls in favor of the ticketing officer, it's usually too much trouble and effort for the average, law-abiding person to contest a violation - especially if it's just a minor infraction. It's beneficial to pay the fine and move on.

This gives an incentive for some officers to "bend the rules" or outright break them. They usually have non-specified quotas to fill on writing traffic tickets (even though most municipalities will deny it) and the officer avoids problems with their chief by meeting those expectations.

What information is included on a traffic ticket?

Basically, the following:

The specific violation you are being charged with
Date, time, and place of the alleged offense
Color, model, and registration of your vehicle
The police or ticketing officer's name and badge number
A notice of how to dispute or contest the charge against you

Is signing the ticket an admittance of guilt?

No. Signing the ticket merely indicates you've properly received it. You'll still have your day in traffic court.

Is the ticket still valid if there is a mistake on it?

The ticket is valid, but if the mistake is fundamental to the charge at hand, you may be able to defend yourself by pointing out the erroneous information. For instance, if you receive a parking ticket and the license plate number recorded is nowhere near your actual plate number, you may be able to say the officer erred in determining your car was at fault. If the ticket has a violation noted as occurring on a specific day, and you can prove you were elsewhere at that time, that may also be a defense. If the citation mentions your vehicle as being a yellow Honda and you drive a black Lexus, you can point that out to the judge as a cause to dismiss the charges.

However, simple errors don't mean much such as noting the car was dark blue instead of black or reversing a number or digit when recording the license plate. But, as mentioned above, if there is any doubt, the judge will usually err on the side of the ticketing officer.

When does it pay to contest or fight a ticket?

As a matter of practicality, if the offense is a minor infraction with no points being assessed to your license and little likelihood of affecting your insurance rates, then the best avenue is to simply grumble, pay and then forget about it. The time and aggravation spent in traffic court will more than outweigh the benefits of saving a couple of bucks. However, if the charge is more serious, the fines likely to be high with points being levied against your license - you may want to give considerable thought to hiring a qualified and experienced traffic attorney. In cases of DUI / DWI, reckless driving, vehicular homicide or similar serious infractions - don't fool around. Hire the most competent lawyer you can find. Your driving privileges and possibly your freedom hang in the balance.

You should never offer the officer a bribe or anything that can be construed as a bribe. You'll more than likely find yourself in a busload of legal trouble - many times far worse than the original traffic violation.

What should I do if I'm being arrested for my offense?

KEEP SILENT! By no means offer any explanations or try and talk your way out if it. The only thing you'll accomplish is to talk yourself into deeper trouble. Anything you say can and will be used against you. Don't offer ANY information without having an attorney present. If the infraction was serious enough to warrant an arrest, then it's no time to play around. Be polite, but refuse to answer any questions put to you before you have a chance to speak with a lawyer. Physically cooperate as much as possible - you don't need a charge of resisting arrest as well. If the officer suspects you've been drinking and driving, you may be subject to a breathalyzer test. If you refuse to take it, the consequences are many times more damaging than the possible DWI / DUI conviction itself. Even if you are later acquitted of the original drunk driving charge, you can still be prosecuted for failure to submit to the test.

There seems to be a disturbing trend happening more and more often. While being arrested for traffic offenses, the detainee is many times subject to abusive and often demeaning commands from the arresting officer - such as being commanded to crawl on their knees or being told not to look at the officer's face. Prudence would dictate a conciliatory attitude with these demands since the police are the ones with the guns. Your attorney will have a chance to make this known in open court for possible civil rights violations, undue force or even brutality charges.

Can I avoid getting a ticket in the first place?

Frankly, yes. Police are people, with all the faults and foibles belonging to members of the human race. Certain things will prejudice them against you. Some drivers have vile or obscene bumper stickers on their vehicles. That's an invitation to get stopped for "traffic infractions." Even political bumper stickers may get you extra scrutiny, especially if the candidate or cause you espouse goes against the officer's grain.

Here's one many drivers aren't aware of: Having a bumper sticker or emblem that looks like some sort of police benevolent society can actually work against you! It looks like you're trying to curry favor by having such a 'talisman" on your car - and many officers resent it. (Take this to heart the next time you get a phone call from someone asking for a donation for some "law enforcement" society, and tells you about the "support sticker" you'll be sent as a donor. Hang up the phone - you'll only be wasting your money.)

"Hot" cars with racing stripes or custom designs "look fast" - and police officers may decide to give you a speeding ticket even if you were going at or near the posted limit. If you are young, a minority and behind the wheels of such a vehicle, expect to get hassled as a matter of course.

Having tinted windows is another invitation to get pulled over. Police hate them because they offer the driver too much privacy - the officer can't see what's happening inside the vehicle. They immediately think of the worst and will react accordingly.

Most anything that gives the driver an edge over the police can get you into trouble - such as radar detectors. If you're stopped for speeding, and the officer has to decide whether to give you a warning or a ticket - if they spot a radar detector in your car, you'll get the ticket.

How do I spot officers in marked and unmarked cars?

Marked cars are relatively easy. They're the ones with POLICE on the body and the rack of lights of the top. But even plain or unmarked patrol cars have telltale signs.

Patrol cars usually have only one occupant - the police officer.
Look for a shotgun rack mounted in the car's front compartment.

If you see a motorcycle with a large-sized radio antenna sticking out from a boxed shaped rear compartment - it probably belongs to law enforcement.

In some rural areas, especially those with long straight roadways, police use aircraft to monitor vehicles. If you spot a small Cessna-type airplane flying parallel to the highway, it's a good bet it's law enforcement surveying the situation from above. The pilot will call to patrol cars in the area to intercept and stop you if you've been tagged as speeding.

What's the difference between "moving" and "non-moving" violations?

Basically - it's just as it implies. A moving violation usually involves an infraction caused by a vehicle in motion. Speeding, illegal U-turns, failure to signal, failure to yield, running a stop sign, DUI/DWI offenses are all moving violations. Non-moving violations occur when the vehicle is parked, or by having some minor mechanical defect. Double parking, parking in a restricted zone, faulty headlights, having a loud muffler are all considered non-moving violations.

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