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Types of Traffic Tickets and Penalties

Understanding the consequences of traffic violations

If you are a driver, it’s likely you’ll get a traffic ticket sometime in your life. If it does happen, what are the consequences?

The first thing to know is traffic laws vary from state to state, and traffic violations can range in severity from civil infractions to misdemeanors to felonies.

Most traffic violations are non-criminal civil infractions, such as “speeding tickets or small traffic accidents. Civil infractions only ever carry a fine,” says Michigan DUI defense attorney Daniel J. Larin.

However, there are some criminal traffic violations, such as “fleeing and eluding [a police officer], driving on a suspended driver’s license, or leaving the scene of an accident,” says Larin. Along with driving under the influence (DUI) and reckless driving, criminal traffic violations are handled in criminal court.

However, most traffic violations are relatively minor and are handled in traffic court. But even minor infractions carry fines and can cause your car insurance rates to go up. This article will cover the different types of traffic tickets and penalties and help point to further legal help.

Different Types of Traffic Violations

Traffic laws are different depending on the state. In general, states classify traffic violations as either:

  • Infractions
  • Misdemeanors
  • Felonies

Traffic Infractions

Infractions are the least severe kind of traffic violation and the most common.

An infraction is an act (such as running a red light) or an omission (such as not wearing a seat belt) that violates the law but is not considered criminal.

Infractions include:

  • Speeding violations (going over the posted speed limit)
  • Running a stop sign or red light
  • Not wearing a seat belt
  • Failing to signal at a turn
  • Illegal turns (U-turns)
  • Driving in the wrong lane
  • Driving on a shoulder or median
  • Driving past a stopped school bus
  • Distracted driving (for example, driving while looking at a cell phone)

Not all infractions are equally severe. Depending on where you live, fines may be heavier for some infractions than others. And some states distinguish between moving violations and non-moving violations and treat moving violations more severely:

  • Moving violations. These occur when the car is in operation and/or moving. Examples include speeding or running a red light.
  • Non-moving violations. These occur when the vehicle is not being driven. A common example is parking violations. Law enforcement could also stop you for outdated vehicle registration tags or for improperly displaying your license plate.

Misdemeanors

A misdemeanor is a criminal offense that can bring heavy fines and jail time. The most common traffic misdemeanors are:

  • Drunk driving. This offense has different labels depending on where you live, including Driving Under the Influence (DUI) and Driving While Intoxicated (DWI).
  • Reckless driving. This offense is generally defined as willful disregard for safety or consequences when driving a vehicle.

Felony

DUI and reckless driving offenses can become a felony depending on the circumstances.

For example, if someone already has multiple DUIs, their next one can be a felony. If someone causes property damage or harm to others while driving drunk, the DUI can also be a felony.

Felony convictions are very serious. Individuals charged with a DUI or reckless driving should consult a criminal defense lawyer as soon as possible.

Learn more about DUI offenses by reading this article.

Penalties

Traffic violation penalties depend on the offense and state law. Even though they’re less severe, the consequences of a civil infraction can still bring financial costs and disruptions to your life:

  • Ticket fines (fines can be dramatically increased for speeding in a school zone or construction zone)
  • Lost driving privileges (suspended or revoked license)
  • Your car insurance company raises insurance premiums
  • Traffic school for remedial lessons

State Point Systems and License Suspension

Each state has a traffic violation points system that keeps track of drivers’ traffic offenses. Every time you’re found guilty of a traffic offense, your state’s Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) will add points to your driving record. The more serious the offense, the more points are given.

If you get too many points within a certain period, your driver’s license will be suspended or revoked. The exact number of points and timeframe are set by state law.

Larin cites Michigan’s point system as an example: “Michigan has a point system of up to 12 points. If someone hits that limit, the [DMV] calls them in for a review to determine whether there are problems in their ability to drive… If [the DMV] doesn’t feel that [the individual is] a good driver, it can either suspend their license or restrict it for a period of time [during which the individual] can only drive to specific places like work, a doctor’s appointment, or school.”

In some serious cases, the DMV may revoke a person’s license for life, Larin says.

If your license has been suspended for a finite period (as opposed to life), Larin says there are a few possible ways to get it back depending on the situation:

  • Reinstatement. At the end of the suspension period (for example, six months), “you can go to the [DMV], pay a reinstatement fee, and they will give your license back,” says Larin.
  • Medical reasons. “If your license was suspended for a medical reason, such as having seizures, then in order to get the license back, you will have to have another hearing to determine if [your medical condition is cleared up] so that you can drive safely,” he says.
  • Appeal.  A third option for getting your license back after a suspension is to “appeal to a circuit court and ask them to restore driving privileges,” says Larin.

If you plead not guilty and contest the ticket, you will go to traffic court. If you select this option, it’s essential to know your court date, so you don’t miss your court appearance. Missing your court appearance is an automatic loss, says Larin.

It’s also important to be aware of any court costs. Learn more about what to do if you get a traffic ticket by reading this article.

Questions for an Attorney

If you get a traffic ticket, you have different options for handling it. If you go to court to contest a violation, it’s often a good idea to speak with a traffic ticket lawyer about the process and your particular violation.

If you have been charged with a more serious traffic offense such as a DUI or reckless driving, it’s imperative to seek legal advice from a criminal defense lawyer specializing in defending DUIs.  

Fortunately, many attorneys provide free consultations, allowing the attorney to hear the facts of your case and for you to determine if the attorney meets your needs. To see whether an attorney or law firm is a good fit, ask informed questions such as:

  • What are your attorneys’ fees?
  • What billing options do you offer?
  • What is your experience defending traffic violations?
  • Do you handle criminal defense?
  • What penalties could I be facing?
  • Should I pay my ticket fine or contest it in traffic court?
  • Is driving school an option?

You can visit the Super Lawyers directory and use the search box to find a lawyer based on your legal issue or location. 

For traffic violations, look for a traffic violation lawyer in the Super Lawyers directory.

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