How Do Traffic Violations Differ From Other Crimes?

With traffic offenses, the stakes are typically lower and the procedures less formal.

Generally, minor traffic offenses (like speeding and running a stop sign or red light) are treated differently than more serious violations of the law. The penalties for minor traffic violations are less severe and the court procedures less formal. And in most states, traffic court—where cases involving minor driving violations typically go—is different from criminal court.

For example, a drunk-driving conviction often leads to jail time and license suspension. And anyone accused of driving under the influence (DUI)—as with most other crimes—has a right to a jury trial. With most traffic violations, on the other hand, a fine is the worst that can happen: jail isn’t usually among the possibility penalties, and license suspension is typically on the table only if the driver has multiple recent traffic convictions. Also, motorists accused of breaking a traffic law usually don’t have the right to have a jury decide their case. In most states, if you contest a citation, a bench trial (where a judge determines guilt or innocence) is the only option.

And although the government has the burden of proof in criminal and traffic cases—meaning the state must prove guilt to get a conviction—the standards of proof sometimes differ. (See What's the difference between the burden of proof and the standard of proof?) In criminal cases—regardless of the state—the prosecution must prove all the elements  of the offense beyond a reasonable doubt. But in some states, minor traffic violations aren’t considered “crimes”—they’re “civil” offenses. So, in these states, the government might be held to a lesser standard of proof for traffic cases. For example, in New York, the standard of proof for traffic violations is “clear and convincing evidence.” And in Oregon, the state needs to prove traffic offenses only by a “preponderance of the evidence.”

(Find out more about traffic violation cases.)

Questions for an Attorney

  • Will a traffic conviction show up on a criminal record search?
  • Can I expunge a traffic conviction?
  • Which driving offense are crimes?

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