Traffic Tickets: What Are Your Options?

Deciding how to handle your traffic citation.

Sooner or later most drivers get cited for a moving violation—whether it be for speeding, running a red light, or some other traffic violation. The consequences of a ticket aren’t catastrophic. But at the very least, dealing with a ticket requires an investment of time. And in many instances, you’ll end up paying expensive fines and increased insurance rates.

Typically, motorists have several alternatives for handling a traffic ticket. Which options are best depends on individual circumstances. This article discusses some of the choices and, hopefully, can provide drivers with some guidance in deciding what to do.

TRAFFIC VIOLATIONS COMPARED TO OTHER OFFENSES

In most states, the court procedures for minor traffic violations are different than those for more serious offenses like driving under the influence (DUI) and reckless driving. For instance, traffic citations are typically dealt with in traffic court, whereas a DUI or reckless driving charge would go to criminal court. (See How Do Traffic Violations Differ From Other Crimes?) This article relates to traffic court procedures.

Go to our Criminal Law section to learn about the criminal court process.

What Are the Choices?

The available options depend on individual circumstances, including what state you live in. But generally, the decisions you'll have to make relate to whether to:

  • sign up for traffic school
  • contest the ticket, and
  • hire an attorney.

Here are some things to consider in making these choices.

Traffic School

In many states, motorists have the option of going to traffic school (sometimes called a “defensive driving” or “driving safety” class). For eligible motorists, it’s a way to keep a violation of their record and avoid the associated insurance-rate hikes. Most states that have traffic school allow drivers to participate only once every 12 or 18 months. And oftentimes, traffic school isn’t available for certain more serious traffic violations.

The driver typically has to pay the costs of traffic school—usually, between $10 and $100. And in some states, the driver must also pay the citation fine.

Whether to Fight the Ticket

If you can’t or don’t want to do traffic school, you’ll have to decide whether to contest your ticket. Lots of drivers don’t bother fighting—they just pay the citation and move on. Paying a ticket is definitely the easiest way of resolving the situation, but whether it’s the right choice for you depends on the circumstances.

In most states, you can avoid having to go to court by paying your ticket online or through the mail. But there are drawbacks to handling things this way: you’re going to pay the maximum possible fine and your insurance rates are likely to go up. If, however, you go to court and plead guilty, there’s often a chance the judge will reduce your fine.

Contesting a ticket generally requires an investment of time—and money, if you hire an attorney—but it gives you a chance of beating the ticket. Generally, there are two ways of winning your case: the judge could find you not guilty after trial or the officer might not show up to court.

But to dispute a citation, you typically need to go to traffic court at least once. Traffic court is generally in session only during business hours. So for many people, going to court means missing work or school. For those who can’t take a day off, hiring an attorney to handle your case is another option.

In some states, including California and Oregon, you can also fight a ticket in writing. The procedure is usually called trial by “declaration” or “affidavit.”

(Read more about deciding whether to fight a ticket.)

Hiring an Attorney

Whether to hire an attorney is another important decision. For drivers who opt to plead guilty or go to traffic school, hiring an attorney might not be worth the expense. But for those who want to contest their citation, there are a number of benefits to having legal representation: you typically won’t have to go to court yourself, and an experienced traffic attorney might have a better shot of beating your case at trial.

(Read more about deciding whether to hire a traffic attorney and what do to if you can't afford to pay your ticket.)

RULES AND PROCEDURES VARY

Rules and procedures related to traffic citations vary by area. This article is based on some of the more common processes used by courts. But because there are so many area-specific variations, it’s best to talk to a local attorney who can give you an idea of how things work where you live.

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