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[Note: The laws and procedures referred to may change.]
More than 15 million traffic violations are filed each year in
California's municipal and justice courts. There are three types of
traffic violations: infractions, misdemeanors, and felonies. Most
traffic violations are infractions, but some, like vehicular
manslaughter, are felonies.
Infractions are not punishable by jail or prison and not subject to
trial by jury; the punishment is a fine. The more common traffic
infractions include speeding and running a red light or stop sign. Total
penalties for infractions can be as much as $200 or more.
Misdemeanors, such as driving under the influence (DUI) of alcohol or
drugs, can carry penalties of as much as $2,000 or more, and/or
confinement in a city or county jail. The maximum penalty allowed in
California for a misdemeanor is one year in county jail and/or a fine.
Felonies are punishable by confinement in state prison.
The most common infractions are moving violations without injury, such
as speeding and running a red light. Drivers stopped for moving
violations are usually released after they sign a Notice to Appear,
printed on the ticket, agreeing to appear on a set date and time.
Information about when to appear in court is provided on the traffic
ticket. (In some counties, police agencies do not assign court dates on
traffic citations. Drivers are instructed to contact the municipal court
within 45 days and they are sent a courtesy notice in the mail.)
Drivers charged with an infraction who want to admit guilt can avoid a
court appearance by paying the fine in person or by mail. Those who do
not pay the traffic fine within the authorized time may have their
driver's license suspended and usually will not be able to renew their
vehicle registration until they have paid all outstanding parking
tickets and administrative costs in full.
Drivers who choose not to admit guilt must post the specified bail and
appear in court or they will be charged with the additional misdemeanor
of violating their agreement to appear (which they made when they signed
their ticket). In this case, a warrant may be issued for their arrest
and they may also have their driver's license suspended.
The most common misdemeanors are driving under the influence of alcohol
or drugs and driving without a valid license.
In some cases, drivers suspected of driving under the influence of drugs
or alcohol will be taken into custody. Drivers charged with most other
traffic misdemeanors and infractions usually will not be taken into
custody but will be asked to sign a Notice to Appear in court. (See box
on previous page.)
If a driver pleads not guilty, normal trial rules are followed, although
less formally than in major cases. The state must prove guilt beyond a
reasonable doubt. The defendant may offer opposing evidence; argue the
law; present supporting witnesses and other evidence; and cross-examine
the law enforcement officer who issued the citation.
If a driver is judged "not guilty," the bail will be refunded. Drivers
judged "guilty" must pay the fine or, in a serious misdemeanor, serve
the sentence. People who willfully do not pay the fine and/or serve the
sentence within the time authorized will have their driver's license
suspended or will be charged with contempt of court, in which case a
warrant will be issued for their arrest.
DRIVING UNDER THE INFLUENCE
The penalties for driving under the influence vary depending on the
number of a driver's prior convictions for this offense.
A first-time violation can be punished by a jail term of not less than
96 hours to not more than six months, a penalty ranging from $1,000 to
$1,500, and possible suspension or restriction of driving privileges for
six months. Drivers with three DUI convictions within seven years
normally receive jail terms of at least six months.
Drivers charged with a DUI must appear in court for an arraignment and
may be requested to post bail. Bail can vary from $300 to $3,000.
Whenever the possible sentences include jail time, the court upon
request will appoint an attorney for drivers who cannot afford to hire
HOW PARKING VIOLATIONS ARE SETTLED
Starting July 1, 1993, new legislation transferred the adjudication
(settling) of parking tickets from the courts to the issuing agencies.
That means that law enforcement agencies not only issue the parking
ticket but also collect payment on an uncontested ticket or conduct the
hearing necessary for a contested ticket.
Only cases that are appealed because they cannot be settled after
hearings with the issuing agency will come to the court.
All law enforcement agencies, except those in Contra Costa and San Mateo
Counties, had to have the necessary procedures in operation by January
1, 1994. Contra Costa and San Mateo Counties are required to have the
necessary procedures in operation no later than July 1, 1996.
If you are charged with a traffic misdemeanor or infraction, you usually
will not be taken into custody. Instead, you will be asked to sign a
Notice to Appear (you may be taken into custody if you refuse to sign
it). The Notice to Appear is often called a "citation" or a "ticket" and
the arresting law enforcement officer also signs it. Your signature does
not mean that you are admitting guilt. It only means that you promise to
appear in court at a date and time specified either on the front of the
Notice to Appear or in the courtesy notice that will be mailed by the
court to the address on the citation. The court appearance will usually
be within 21 days after the ticket is issued.
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