Driving-related offenses range in seriousness and are typically categorized as:
State laws vary in classifying, processing, and penalizing driving-related offenses. However, traffic offenses are generally classified and penalized according to the particular jurisdiction’s law, the offender’s prior convictions, and whether the offense involved injuries, death, or property damage.
The majority of driving-related offenses are classified as infractions (also called “violations” or “civil infractions”). A traffic infraction is the least serious traffic offense and is typically defined as an act or omission that’s prohibited by law but isn’t a crime. Common examples of infractions include:
Generally, traffic infractions are “strict liability” offenses, meaning a motorist can be convicted of the infraction regardless of intent. For example, establishing that a driver exceeded the posted speed limit is sufficient for a conviction—whether the driver knew he or she was speeding is irrelevant.
In many jurisdictions, traffic infractions are further categorized as moving and nonmoving violations. Moving violations are typically more serious than nonmoving violations. Speeding and running a red light are examples of moving violations. Nonmoving violations include offenses related to illegal parking and defective equipment on the vehicle.
In many jurisdictions, traffic infractions are prosecuted in traffic courts, where the procedures are often less formal than in criminal courts. A motorist charged with a traffic infraction usually has several options for resolving the matter. Most states allow motorists to avoid a court appearance by pleading guilty and paying the fine by mail or online. However, drivers who plead not guilty must appear in court for a bench trial (trial by judge).
In most states, a traffic infraction can’t result in jail time. Potential penalties generally include a fine, traffic school, and demerit points on the motorist’s driving record. Accumulating a certain number of points can result in increased insurance premiums and license suspension.
A traffic offense is generally considered a crime if it’s punishable by imprisonment. Criminal traffic offenses are classified as either misdemeanors or felonies. Examples of driving-related offenses that are classified as crimes include:
Whether a criminal traffic offense is categorized as a misdemeanor or felony varies by jurisdiction. While some traffic offenses are crimes regardless of the circumstances, some offenses that would normally be classified as infractions are elevated to criminal offenses if certain aggravating factors are present. For example, some jurisdictions classify speeding as a misdemeanor if the motorist exceeds the posted speed limit by an excessive amount.
Similarly, driving-related offenses that would otherwise be classified as misdemeanors can become felonies in some situations. Many states elevate a misdemeanor traffic offense to a felony if:
For example, in many jurisdictions, DUI is typically a misdemeanor traffic offense but can be charged as a felony if the offender has prior DUI convictions or the offense involved injuries or death.
In most cases, an offender charged with a traffic crime must appear personally in court for an arraignment. At the arraignment, the judge advises the defendant of the charges, penalties, and constitutional rights provided to all criminal defendants. These constitutional protections include the rights to have a court-appointed attorney and a jury trial. Additionally, the prosecution must prove that the defendant committed the traffic crime “beyond a reasonable doubt.”
A misdemeanor traffic offense is more serious than an infraction but less serious than a felony. In most jurisdictions, a misdemeanor conviction carries a maximum sentence of one year in county jail. A felony is the most serious criminal offense and typically carries a sentence of more than one year in state prison.
In addition to imprisonment, other penalties for traffic crimes can include fines, probation or parole, community service, license suspension or revocation, vehicle immobilization or impoundment, and demerit points assigned to the offender’s driving record.