What To Do After Getting A Traffic Ticket In California
It’s a sight no driver wants to see: blue and red lights flashing in your rearview mirror. You just got pulled over, and the officer issued you a traffic ticket. Now what?
Knowing what to do after you get a traffic ticket can mean the difference between paying hefty fines, having your auto insurance premiums increase, and accumulating points on your license, or successfully fighting the charge and avoiding the negative repercussions. So if you’ve received a traffic ticket, read on to learn what steps you need to take to accomplish the outcome you want.
What is a Traffic Ticket?
A traffic ticket is a notice given to a motorist by a law enforcement officer, accusing the motorist of violating at least one traffic law.
Are There Different Types of Traffic Tickets?
Yes. In California, the most common types of traffic tickets are parking tickets, infractions, and misdemeanor tickets.
- Parking tickets are not entered into the traffic court record. A parking ticket comes with a fine that you must pay by a stated due date. If you do not pay the fine in time, the amount you owe may be increased. Unpaid parking tickets can prevent you from renewing your vehicle’s registration. If you believe a parking ticket was issued in error, you can request an administrative hearing to appeal the ticket.
- Infractions are “standard” tickets issued for common traffic violations. If you’re issued an infraction, you will typically be asked to sign the ticket, which constitutes a notice to appear. Your signature acknowledges that you will either pay the fine (also known as bail) on or before your stated court date, or appear in court on that date to contest the ticket. Infractions include violations like speeding and running red lights.
- Misdemeanors are more serious criminal offenses. If you are charged with a misdemeanor violation, you may be arrested, or you may be asked to sign a notice to appear — this is based on the circumstances and the discretion of the law enforcement officer issuing the ticket. Misdemeanors include violations like driving without a license or driving under the influence.
It’s possible to be charged with a felony related to traffic violations (such as reckless driving that causes serious injury to someone other than the driver). Felonies are serious criminal charges that can carry fines, prison time, probation, and other penalties. If you are charged with a felony traffic violation, consult an attorney.
How Do You Get a Traffic Ticket?
If a law enforcement officer witnesses you (or otherwise has evidence) violating a traffic law, they can pull you over and issue a ticket. You can also receive a ticket after the fact, such as a red light camera ticket.
What Are the Consequences of a Traffic Ticket?
Getting a traffic ticket in California comes with fines (also known as bail). These can be in excess of $500 for a simple infraction, and even higher for misdemeanors. Misdemeanors can also come with jail time, probation, license suspension, and other legal consequences.
Another consequence is points on your driving record. California uses a point system called the Negligent Operator Treatment System (NOTS). Under the NOTS system, you can be considered a “negligent driver” if you accumulate:
- 4 or more points in a 12-month period,
- 6 or more points in a 24-month period,
- 8 or more points in a 36-month period.
Accumulating points can result in license suspension and other penalties.
And while a single point on your driving record may not seem like a big deal, that’s all it takes for insurance companies to increase your premiums, potentially costing you thousands of dollars more per year to maintain your auto insurance coverage. For many infractions, it’s possible to attend traffic school and mask a single point so insurance companies can’t see it (more on that later in this article).
What to Do When You’re Pulled Over
Here’s what to do at every step of the process if you find yourself getting a traffic ticket.
When you get a traffic ticket as a result of a traffic stop, this is what happens:
- The law enforcement officer will pull you over.
- They will tell you what traffic violation you allegedly committed.
- They will collect your personal information from your driver’s license, vehicle registration, and auto insurance.
- They will present you with a ticket.
- They will ask you to sign the ticket. This is not an admission of guilt. It simply signals that you agree to either pay your fine or appear in court by the date shown on the ticket.
What to Do During the Traffic Stop
During the initial traffic stop, before and while receiving your ticket, there are a few actions you should take.
- Ask for evidence. Ask the law enforcement officer who is issuing the ticket what method they used to determine that you broke the law. Write down what they say so you don’t forget.
- Say as little as possible. Anything you say can be used against you in court. Don’t admit to breaking the law or try to justify or explain your actions. Say as little as you can.
- Be forgettable. If the officer can’t recall the traffic stop later, they may not be able to answer questions or thoroughly explain the incident in court, which can help your case. Do not argue with the officer under any circumstances. Be polite and try to be as unremarkable as possible.
- Write down everything. Wait until after the traffic stop to write down any information, but try to do it as soon as possible so the entire incident is fresh in your mind. Write down everything you can think of, including the date, time, and location of the stop.
What Happens After You Get a Traffic Ticket
After you get a traffic ticket, you’ll have some time before your court date (which can be found on the ticket — be sure to keep it for your records!). You will get a date set for an arraignment hearing. Your hearing is set after the system processes your ticket information. An arraignment hearing is your first appearance before a judicial officer of the court. Click here to read about what you should wear to traffic court.
You can choose to wait until your arraignment to decide how you plead. At the hearing, you will be informed of your rights and the charges and then asked how you plead. You can choose to be represented by an attorney (who you hire).
The court date is the deadline to either plead guilty and pay the fine (bail), or appear in court to plead not guilty and contest the ticket. Some courts allow you to enter a not guilty plea online or in writing, rather than by physically appearing at the courthouse. Your ticket should include contact information for your court — contact them to find out the exact steps you need to take.
If You Plead Guilty To A Traffic Ticket
If you choose to plead guilty, you admit to having committed the charges. According to the LA County Superior court, “The judge may require that you pay the base fine plus a penalty assessment and other fees. The judge may impose a fine for each separate violation. You may request community service and/or request a reduction in your non-mandatory fines/fees. The judge may allow you to attend traffic school if you are eligible. You will be required to pay the fees for traffic school.”
Simply put, if you plead guilty to a traffic ticket, then you pay the applicable fine(s), traffic school administrative fee, take the traffic school option, and pass the traffic school exam if you are eligible.
If You Plead Not Guilty & Decide To Fight The Traffic Ticket
However, if you plead not guilty, then your case will go to trial. You may plead not guilty online, by phone, or by mail. These options depend on the county of the court that issues the ticket. Your trial is held within 45 days unless you forfeit the time.
You have three options for the trial:
- Court Trial – You testify in court in front of a judge. The officer who gave you a ticket has to appear and testify. You may also subpoena witnesses to strengthen your case.
- Summary Trial – you have to appear in court, but the officer does not. You cannot subpoena any witnesses; the court proceeds based on the ticket.
- Trial by Written Declaration – The option allows you to send a written statement explaining your case and why the court should dismiss your ticket. The officer also has to prepare a statement. The judge makes a decision based on both statements. If you are unhappy with the judge’s ruling, you can appeal and appear in a physical courtroom to further argue your case.
If the law enforcement officer who issued the ticket doesn’t show up to court, you may be found not guilty by default. However, don’t count on this happening. Prepare for your court date under the assumption that you will be questioned by the judge and asked to prove your case.
Unless you have a clear-cut case, it may not be worth fighting the ticket. It is time-consuming, even if you hire a lawyer. If you lose your trial, you may have to pay higher fines, and you’ll still get the point on your record, which could affect your insurance rates. Attorneys can be expensive, so be sure to weigh that cost with the cost of paying the fines and other costs should you be found guilty.
If you contest your ticket and are found guilty anyway, you can ask the judge to allow you to attend traffic school. This can help you mask a point on your license, and some judges will even be more lenient about fines and other punishments if you’re proactive about attending traffic school. Keep in mind that traffic school eligibility is at your judge’s discretion, so be polite when you make the request.
Online Traffic School is Affordable, Convenient, and Fast
However, you choose to handle a traffic ticket, keep online traffic school in mind. Best Online Traffic School offers a course that’s fully licensed by the California DMV that you can complete at your own pace on any internet-connected device. Get started (for free!) today.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Do You Have to Go to Court for a Traffic Ticket?
No. If you don’t want to contest the ticket, you can simply pay the fine and move on. This is equivalent to pleading guilty to the traffic violation you are charged with. In addition to whatever fine is required by your traffic ticket, you may have to pay increased auto insurance rates once the violation goes on your driving record and you receive one or more points on your license.
2. Should You Hire an Attorney for a Traffic Ticket?
It depends. If you plan to plead guilty and pay your fine, you do not need an attorney.
If you plan to contest your ticket, an attorney can help you gather evidence and make an argument in your favor to the judge assigned to your case. A qualified attorney also has specialized knowledge of traffic laws and the court system that may help you fight your ticket.
3. Do You Have to Pay Your Traffic Tickets?
Yes. Unless you make other arrangements with the court (such as a payment plan or deferred payment), you must pay your traffic tickets. If you don’t, you run the risk of increasing your fines, accruing additional fines, having your driver’s license suspended, being unable to renew your vehicle registration, or even having a warrant issued for your arrest.
4. Do You Have to Pay Out-of-State Traffic Tickets?
Yes. Most states have reciprocal agreements to share driver violation information with one another. If you think you can avoid paying a ticket because you received it out-of-state, the consequences are likely to catch up to you anyway. It’s never worth the risk to ignore a ticket.
5. What to Do if You Decide to Pay the Ticket
If you decide to pay the ticket, simply follow the instructions written on it. It should have information about the proper court, as well as how to make your payment, and the deadline for doing so. Make sure to pay the ticket on or before the date so you don’t risk any additional fines or penalties.