Traffic Violations in California
Traffic accidents, injuries, and fatalities are often the product of a driver's deliberate or unintentional disregard of laws that regulate road safety and usage. Any motorist or other road user (cyclist, pedestrian, motorcyclist) who fails to follow such laws commits a traffic violation or offense.
In California, a traffic violation can be civil or criminal.
When the violation is civil, it is regarded as an infraction or a low-level offense—one where the accused's liability only extends to the payment of fines, community service, driver education programs, and other non-incarceration sentences approved by law or the court.
Meanwhile, when a traffic violation is a criminal, it is a serious offense that can be prosecuted as a misdemeanor or felony. Unlike civil infractions, criminal traffic violations usually have an element of bodily injury, property damage, death, or the threat of it. For these crimes, though the road user may be subjected to penalties assessed for minor traffic offenses, albeit augmented, the loss of one's freedom is entirely possible.
Several times California drivers will be pulled over and ticketed for traffic violations. Other times, the ticket will be mailed to the offender (this is more common with red light tickets and parking tickets that were not attached to a person's vehicle). However, when the traffic offense is severe (for instance, an offense of driving while impaired by alcohol or drugs), the driver will be taken into custody immediately.
Regardless of how a road user learns of a traffic violation in California, the individual will have to address the matter in a local court or a parking agency if the traffic ticket arose from a parking violation. Records of traffic violations are typically complied within California traffic records and issued to interested and eligible persons on request.
Types of Traffic Violations in California
The State of California classifies traffic violations by severity: civil offenses or crimes. This classification method encompasses all types of traffic violations perpetrated by all kinds of road users. However, another category considers the motion of the cited driver's vehicle, i.e., if the vehicle was moving when the offense occurred. As a result, a California driver can be accused not only of a civil or criminal traffic violation but also of a moving or non-moving violation.
Moving traffic violations in California include:
- Running a red light
- Reckless driving
- Hit and run
- Eluding a police vehicle
- Failure to use turn signals
- Drunk driving
Whereas non-moving violations, which often involve malfunctioning or defective vehicle equipment and parking offenses, include:
- Parking in a no-parking zone
- Parking near a fire hydrant (California motorists are banned from parking within 15 feet of a fire hydrant. See Cal. Veh. Code § 22514.)
- Parking in a handicap spot with no valid permit
- No registration, insurance, or license
- Expired registration or tag
- No seatbelt
- Faulty equipment:
- Broken headlights or taillights
- Defective brake or accelerator pedals, tires, and airbags
- Bad windshield wipers
- Improper muffler
- No light on license plate
Typically, the penalties for moving violations are more severe than those for non-moving violations. This is because a moving vehicle poses a higher risk of death and permanent bodily injury to others than a stationary vehicle. Hence, apart from the penalties imposed by the court, an adult driver ticketed for a moving violation may have to contend with negligent operator points added to their license by the California Department of Motor Vehicles, pricey insurance premiums or the cancellation of their policy, driving license suspensions, and even the loss of jobs and job opportunities.
California Traffic Violation Code
The California Vehicle Code (also VC or CVC) comprises the traffic laws of the state. These laws govern the registration and possession of vehicles, the operation of vehicles on state roads and highways, and the penalties and financial liabilities due to road users who commit traffic violations.
California Felony Traffic Violations
Most traffic violations recognized by the California Vehicle Code are often parking violations, infractions, or misdemeanors. However, some traffic misdemeanors can be amped to felonies if aggravating factors exist. For example:
- Property damage
- Multiple prior convictions
- Willful disregard for other road users' safety
- Fleeing from the scene of an accident
- Permanent bodily disfigurement
Felony traffic violations usually carry harsher prison sentences (often more than a year) and steeper fines than their misdemeanor counterparts. Examples of such violations include:
- Felony Hit and Run
- Felony Evading a Police Officer
- Felony Driving Under the Influence (Fourth DUI offense within 10 years)
- Felony Drag Racing or Road Racing
When a traffic offense can be prosecuted as a felony or misdemeanor, the California courts refer to it as a wobbler. Under the law, wobblers are presumptively felonies unless reduced to misdemeanors by the court or prosecutor. In this sense, some California felony traffic violations qualify as wobbler offenses. For instance, a Felony Hit and Run may be wobbled or reduced to a misdemeanor if the related accident caused property damage but no fatalities.
California Traffic Misdemeanors
California traffic misdemeanors are offenses whose legal penalties include a jail sentence that is usually not more than a year. Anyone who incurs jail time for such an offense will spend it in a city or county jail. Examples of traffic misdemeanors in the state include:
- Misdemeanor Hit and Run
- Misdemeanor Evading a Police Officer
- Misdemeanor Driving Under the Influence (First, second, or third DUI offense within 10 years)
- Misdemeanor Drag Racing or Road Racing
- Reckless Driving
- Driving Without a License
- Illegal Use of Handicap Parking Placard
- Driving on a Suspended or Revoked License
- Failure to Appear in Court
- Driving Across A Divided Highway
- Overweight Vehicle Violations
California Traffic Infractions
California regards traffic infractions as noncriminal offenses. Hence, people ticketed for civil infractions may incur penalties like fines, community service, mandatory attendance of traffic school, and negligent operator points, but no jail time. Furthermore, while fitting the violation, the fines assessed for infractions are considerably smaller than those for felonies and misdemeanors.
Some examples of traffic infractions in California include:
- Running a Red Light
- Driving While Smoking Marijuana or Drinking Alcohol
- Driving Without a SeatBelt
- Driving on a Bicycle Lane
- Parking violations
- Improper Passing
- Faulty vehicle equipment
- Driving Without a License
- Texting While Driving
- Illegal U-turn
- Illegal Tinted Windows
- Illegal Use of Handicap Parking Placard
Note that while a traffic offense classified as an infraction from the onset cannot lead to jail time, the ticketed party may spend some time in jail if the court issues a bench warrant for a payment or appearance default.
Also, some traffic infractions can be upgraded to misdemeanors because of their severity and the accused's criminal history, and vice versa. The state courts refer to such offenses as wobblettes. As such, a party whose civil infraction is charged as a misdemeanor will be eligible for a jail sentence. Driving Without a License and Illegal Use of Handicap Parking Placard are examples of wobblette offenses.
California Traffic Violation Codes and Fines
Road users in California can be cited for numerous traffic violations. These violations come with a fine penalty and, in most cases, additional fees. As a general rule, the amount in fines payable by a motorist depends on the kind of violation. Among the three types of traffic violations in California, offenses categorized as infractions typically have lesser fines and fees than other offenses.
According to sections 42000.1 to 42001.25 of the Vehicle Code, the base fines for infractions range from $20 to $500 or more. The base fine is the dollar amount that the law imposes for each infraction, excluding other surcharges, fees, and assessments. A complete list of the standard amounts attached to traffic infractions in California can be found in the Uniform Bail and Penalty Schedules under "traffic infraction fixed penalty schedule". The Judicial Council of California publishes this schedule each year.
Meanwhile, fine penalties assessed for traffic misdemeanors have a specific range. As outlined in Cal. Veh. Code § 42002, anyone convicted of a traffic misdemeanor in the state is liable to pay a fine not exceeding $1,000, except the law says differently. The standard fine penalties for traffic misdemeanors can be found under "traffic misdemeanor bail and penalty schedule" in the Judicial Council’s Uniform Bail and Penalty Schedules.
Lastly, as stated in Cal. Veh. Code § 42000, individuals charged with felony traffic violations are subject to a fine not below $1,000 but not exceeding $10,000.
How to Pay a Traffic Violation Ticket in California
Law enforcement agencies in California issue three major types of traffic violation tickets: parking tickets, infraction tickets, and misdemeanor tickets. Each ticket has specific methods by which it should be paid. Paying a traffic ticket fine in California is also known as forfeiting bail.
Parking tickets: In California, drivers who violate parking regulations may receive parking tickets. Any fine assessed for a parking violation is payable to the parking enforcement division or agency with jurisdiction over the violation, not the courts. The parking agency may post guidelines for resolving tickets on its website. For instance, drivers cited for a parking violation in the City of Santa Barbara can find payment instructions on the website of the local parking agency.
Ultimately, it is advisable to pay parking tickets before the due date, as there are late fees and penalties. Also, failing to pay such tickets can prevent motorists from renewing their car registration.
Infraction tickets: Unlike parking tickets, infraction tickets are handled by the courts. Hence, an individual cited for a traffic infraction must pay the ticket to the court. The appropriate court will be listed on the ticket, as well as the deadline to pay.
Generally, before an infraction ticket can be paid, it must be processed by the court. Processing refers to the time taken for a ticket to be available on the court's online ticket payment system. Once a ticket is processed, the cited party has a few ways to pay, including in person at the courthouse, by mail, by phone, or online. Usually, the payment instructions, locations, and options (cash, credit card, money order, etc.) will be published on the court's traffic website.
- Fix-it (or correctable violations) tickets: Sometimes, a motorist may be issued a fix-it ticket because of a vehicle, insurance, license, or equipment violation. While the violation itself is classified as an infraction, the party may not need to pay for the ticket, only show evidence to the court that the issue has been fixed. Even so, when a proof/certificate of correction is required, the motorist may still have to pay a dismissal fee to close the case. The procedure for resolving fix-it tickets and obtaining a certificate of correction can be found on the state judiciary's site.
The following should be noted when attempting to pay an infraction ticket in California:
- The court may mail a courtesy notice to the motorist when the traffic ticket has been processed. Processing times vary by the court but will generally take at least two weeks from the ticket date. If no notice has been received, the individual may use an online tool on the court's website or call the court to obtain that information.
- Cited parties can use the state judiciary's Find Your Court tool to retrieve the traffic court's contact information, website, and physical address.
- Ticketed individuals experiencing financial hardships can ask the court for a fine reduction, community service in lieu of payment, a payment plan, or an extension. This request can be made through the online MyCitations system or by mailing/hand-delivering Form TR-320 to the court listed on the ticket.
Misdemeanor tickets: Unlike parking and infraction tickets which can be resolved by paying the relevant fines, traffic misdemeanor tickets issued in California require a mandatory court appearance.
When stopped for a traffic misdemeanor, the officer may ask the motorist to sign the ticket unless the offense warrants an immediate arrest due to the presence of alcohol, drugs, or other factors outlined in Cal. Veh. Code § 40300 et seq. Signing a traffic ticket (or Notice to Appear) is a promise to appear in court. As such, the motorist must attend court for an arraignment on the date written on the ticket or risk the fallout (driver's license suspension, the issuance of an arrest warrant, etc.). More information on the ensuing court process can be gleaned from the How Criminal Cases Work webpage.
It should be noted that a misdemeanor ticket does not exempt an individual from paying fines, only that a finding of guilt is required first.
Traffic Violation Lookup in California
Motorists ticketed in California can look up traffic violation cases and tickets online. All superior courts maintain online systems on their websites for these purposes.
For easy access, the California judiciary publishes an online directory, which the public can use to find a court's traffic case information or payment portal. Rather than inputting the name of a city or a zipcode into the directory's search box, the public can click "View All Courts," scroll to the applicable county, and then click "Traffic". However, suppose this action does not open the court's portal directly. In that case, the interested party can browse the landing page to find a "pay traffic fines" or "lookup traffic tickets" link. Alternatively, the party can look for the portal under the Case, Traffic, or Online Services tab on the relevant court’s website menu.
After accessing the lookup tool, one can search for a traffic violation with a citation number, case/docket number, last name, date of birth, or driver's license number.
How to Plead not Guilty to a Traffic Violation in California
Any road user cited for a traffic violation in California has the right to contest the charge and request a trial if innocent. This is known as pleading "not guilty".
Pleading Not Guilty to a Traffic Infraction
When intending to plead "not guilty" to an infraction, an individual can either appear in court on the date listed on their ticket or courtesy notice, or contact the court in advance to schedule an arraignment. The individual can enter a "not guilty" plea at the arraignment and request a trial date. This trial can be scheduled for another day upon the party's request, but it will be held without a jury.
Alternatively, the defendant can request a "trial by written declaration" to present their case and provide evidence in writing without physically appearing before a judge. This request can be made at the clerk's office or via mail. However, a person only qualifies for a trial by written declaration when:
- Cited for a traffic infraction that does not require a court appearance, and
- The due date for the ticket has not expired.
One requirement for such a trial is that the requester must deposit a bail amount (the violation's fine penalty) for the benefit of not appearing in person. If found innocent after the trial, the court will refund the paid sum. Further instructions, forms, and information can be found on the Trial by Written Declaration web page.
The third option for ticketed individuals who believe they are not guilty of a traffic infraction is to skip the arraignment and schedule a trial under Cal. Veh. Code § 40519. This request can be made at the court on the traffic ticket's due date or by contacting the clerk's office in advance. Like a trial by written declaration, the interested party must deposit the traffic bail amount together with their request. This amount will be returned if the court acquits the party.
Pleading Not Guilty to a Traffic Misdemeanor or Felony
Meanwhile, an individual who wants to enter a "not guilty" plea for a traffic misdemeanor or felony can do so at their mandatory arraignment.
What Happens if You Plead No Contest to a Traffic Violation in California
Pleading no contest ("nolo contendere") to a traffic violation in California holds the same legal effect as pleading guilty. However, unlike a guilty plea, a defendant who pleads no contest does not deny the violation but does not admit responsibility either. As such, the conviction cannot be used to impose liability on the party in a civil damages suit or other civil action.
An individual who pleads no contest to a traffic violation may be sentenced immediately with the same penalties assessed for a guilty plea. In some cases, especially when it involves lengthy incarceration, sentencing may be fixed for a later date.
How Long Do Traffic Violations Stay on Your Record?
An aftereffect of pleading guilty or no contest to a traffic violation in California is that the Department of Motor Vehicles reports the violation on the offender's driving record. The presence of this violation often affects a person's auto insurance rates as insurance companies will regard the offending driver as high-risk.
However, Cal. Veh. Code §§ 1807 and 1808 specify the duration within which traffic violations can stay on a person’s driving record:
- Ten years from the violation date for most two-point traffic violations (e.g., hit and run; driving under the influence; driving while suspended/revoked). Three years for other traffic violations.
- Ten years for DUI violations by noncommercial drivers.
- Fifty-five years for certain violations committed with a commercial vehicle or by the holder of a commercial driver's license. These offenses are listed in sections 15300a, 15300b, 15302, 15304, and 15306 of the Vehicle Code. For example, using a commercial motor vehicle to commit a felony.
- Ten years for out-of-service order violations committed by commercial drivers
Other reporting periods can be found on the California DMV's Retention of Driver Record Information page.
Can Traffic Violations Be Expunged/Sealed in California?
Yes. If certain requirements are met, some traffic misdemeanors and felonies can be expunged under the California Vehicle Code, Section 1203.4. Traffic infractions are not among the eligible violations. The public can find information on the state's expungement process on the judiciary's Clean Your Record webpage.
Note, however, that traffic violations create criminal and driving records. These records are vastly different and are managed by separate state agencies (the courts and the Department of Motor Vehicles). Hence, while an expungement may erase a traffic offense from one's criminal record, it will not affect any violation or demerit point reported on the individual's driving record.
What Happens if You Miss a Court Date for a Traffic Violation in California?
Anyone who misses a court date for a traffic violation in California is guilty of a Failure to Appear (FTA). The possible repercussions include:
- The court can impose an infraction or misdemeanor charge on the offender.
- The court may approve a warrant for the individual's arrest.
- The court may add a civil assessment of up to $300 to the fine penalty.
- The California DMV may suspend the offender's license or driving privileges.
- The case may be transferred to the court's collections division or an outside collection agency.
- The FTA will appear on the offender's driving record for 5 years (10 years for FTAs related to DUI offenses).
- The court may find the offender guilty in absentia under Cal. Veh. Code § 40903.