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.
In most states, you'll go to traffic court if you get cited for a minor traffic violation such as:
But your case will be in criminal court if you're accused of a more serious driving-related offense (or any other crime) like:
Each state has its own classification system. But, generally, minor traffic offenses are considered infractions or civil offenses, whereas the charges that end up in criminal court are usually misdemeanors or felonies.
Because the penalties for a minor traffic violation are less serious than those that can result from a criminal conviction, defendants in traffic cases typically don't have all the same rights as criminal defendants.
Generally, anyone who's accused of committing a misdemeanor or felony criminal offense faces the possibility of jail time. With most traffic violations, on the other hand, a fine is the worst that can happen: jail isn’t usually among the possible penalties, and license suspension is typically on the table only if the driver has multiple recent traffic convictions.
When jail time is a possible consequence of a conviction, the defendant normally has the right to a jury trial. So, the defendant's guilt in a criminal trial is usually decided by 12 jurors. For the defendant to be convicted, the jurors must normally come to a unanimous agreement as to guilt.
Motorists who are accused of breaking a minor 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.
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. 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.”
Another important distinction between minor traffic and criminal charges relates to the right to a court-appointed attorney. For a traffic violation, the accused motorist is allowed to hire his or her own attorney but typically isn't entitled to court-appointed counsel. So, traffic defendants who want legal representation must pay for their own attorney. In criminal court, on the other hand, defendants who can't afford to hire an attorney have a right to appointed counsel paid for by the government.