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 this 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 Happens When You Get 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 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!).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What to Do When You Get a Traffic Ticket
Here’s what to do at every step of the process if you find yourself getting a traffic 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 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.
Keep in mind that the fines associated with your ticket are only part of the financial impact of getting a traffic ticket. You can also expect your auto insurance rates to increase once one or more points gets added to your license. You can mask up to one point from insurance companies by requesting to go to traffic school. To do this, contact the court shown on your ticket and ask if you’re eligible. They’ll have to approve you for traffic school before you can enroll in a course.
What to Do if You Decide to Fight the Ticket
If you decide to fight the ticket, you’ll go to court and face a prosecutor, who will use evidence to try to prove that you’re guilty of breaking the law. You will similarly use evidence to prove that you are innocent.
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.
To prepare for court, you can:
- Delay the hearing. This gives you more time to prepare and build your case.
- Gather evidence. Evidence can include photos, videos, eyewitness accounts, and any other information that helps support your innocence.
- Speak to witnesses. You can call witnesses to court to speak to the judge in person. This can include any passengers in the car at the time the ticket was issued.
- Plan your questions. You will have the opportunity to question the officer who issued your ticket. You can ask about details of the traffic stop, evidence the officer has against you, their training and equipment, and other questions.
In some cases, you can pursue a trial by written declaration. This means that instead of appearing in court in person, you submit paperwork to the court, including a written statement, evidence, and statements from any witnesses you have. The officer who issued the ticket also submits a written statement, and the judge considers both sides and issues a ruling. If you are unhappy with the judge’s ruling, you can appeal and appear in a physical courtroom to further argue your case.
If you go to court to contest a traffic ticket, you can represent yourself, or you can hire a lawyer to represent you. 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.