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Types of Traffic Offenses

Traffic offenses are either civil infractions or crimes. Traffic crimes are petty misdemeanors (punishable by a maximum prison term of 30 days), misdmeanors (punishable by a maximum prison term of one year), or felonies (punishable by a prison term of more than one year). Traffic offenses divide into three categories: moving, parking or equipment/miscellaneous violations.

Civil Traffic Infractions

Most traffic violations are civil infractions. A civil traffic infraction is a violation of a statute, ordinance or rule relating to traffic movement and control (including parking, standing, equipment and pedestrian offenses) for which the penalties do not include imprisonment. Examples include speeding, running a stop sign, driving without a seat belt, having an expired safety check sticker and parking where prohibited. Penalties for traffic infractions include monetary assessments (fines, costs, fees and surcharges), community service and mandatory attendance at a driving class or other educational program. Most civil traffic infractions can be handled without going to court.

Because defendants in civil traffic infraction cases are not subject to imprisonment, they are not constitutionally entitled to all the procedural safeguards associated with a criminal trial, such as the right to a jury trial or the right to court-appointed counsel. Additionally, because traffic infractions are not "crimes," a judgment determining that a defendant committed an infraction is not reported on the defendant's criminal record. However, alleged infractions related to traffic movement and control that arise from the operation of a motor vehicle (commonly referred to as "moving violations") do appear on the certified abstract of the Traffic Violations Bureau's record for a defendant (commonly referred to as a "traffic abstract") that can be purchased by "any person."

Traffic Crimes

A traffic crime is a violation of a statute, ordinance or rule relating to traffic movement and control (including equipment and parking offenses) for which the defendant can be sentenced to a possible prison term. Examples include driving without a license, driving under the influence of an intoxicant, driving without motor vehicle insurance (except for the first offense) and reckless driving.

A defendant charged with a traffic crime must appear in court on the date and time indicated by the law enforcement officer on the citation or on the receipt given to the defendant after posting bail. Failure to appear as directed may result in a bench warrant being issued by a judge for the defendant's arrest on other charges. At the defendant's first court appearance, the judge will inform the defendant of the charges and explain his or her rights and options. The judge may also refer the defendant to the Office of the Public Defender for possible free legal representation.