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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 one.
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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