Traffic

Before the Case

In California, a traffic case gets started when a traffic ticket is delivered to the court by a law enforcement agency. This ticket is called a citation.

When the court receives the original citation, it opens a file for the case. The court also mails a courtesy notice to the person who was cited. This courtesy notice will give information about:

  • The amount of money due to the court for this ticket (called the “bail”);
  • The deadline to respond to the court without additional penalties;
  • Notice about appearing. For some tickets, you must appear in court in person. This is called a "mandatory appearance." In other cases, a ticket can be resolved without appearing in court;
  • Information about traffic school eligibility;
  • Information about the clearing a correctable citation. This is called a “fix it” ticket.

NOTE: Even if you do not get a courtesy notice, it is your responsibility to get information about deadlines or amounts due. If you do not receive a courtesy notice, contact the court before the “promise to appear” date on your ticket. Ask a clerk to let you know what you need to do.

Find contact information for the court in your county.

Read the "Notice to Appear" that is on your ticket. You will find:

  1. The law you have been accused of breaking;
  2. The deadline to pay the ticket or go to court;
  3. The name of the court that will decide your case, and
  4. What you must do to respond to the ticket;

TIP: DO NOT ignore a traffic ticket.
Fees and other penalties will be added if you miss your deadlines.

There are three kinds of citations where the police can give you a ticket:

1. Parking tickets

Parking tickets are not filed with the court. A parking ticket shows the amount you must pay to the parking agency where the violation occurred. The parking agency may also fine you for broken equipment (like your car's headlight). If it does, you pay that agency the amount shown on the ticket.

  • If you think you shouldn't have gotten the ticket, contact the parking agency listed on the ticket and ask them what to do.
  • The longer you wait to pay your ticket, the more you may have to pay. Read your ticket carefully to see when your fine will increase. If you don't pay your parking ticket at all, you won't be able to renew your car's registration.
  • Don't go to (or call) the court unless the parking agency has already decided your case and you want to appeal the agency's decision.

2. Infraction traffic tickets

An infraction is a relatively minor violation of a law and cannot be punished by time in prison. And often, you do not need to go to court -- if you take care of your ticket right away.

Your ticket should say what law you have been accused of breaking. Generally, it will be one of four types. To learn more about the one you received, click on the ticket type.

  • Moving violations – driving too fast or running a red light for example.
  • Driving without proof of insurance for your vehicle.
  • Car registration or driver’s license violations.
  • Having broken equipment that you need to fix.

3. Misdemeanor traffic tickets

A misdemeanor is a crime that can be punished by up to one year in jail. If you received a misdemeanor ticket, you must go to court.

If the charges don't involve alcohol or drugs, the police officer can ask you to sign the ticket, also called the "Notice to Appear" (in court). Signing doesn't mean that you admit you're guilty. It just means that you promise to appear in court.

NOTE: If the police officer thinks that you're driving under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs, you'll be taken into custody. Then you’ll have to go to court.

People have at least five ways they may clear up their traffic tickets if they are charged with an infraction.

They may decide to not fight the ticket and:

  1. Pay the full amount written on the courtesy or final notice on or before the due date (unless the courtesy notices stated that a mandatory appearance is required).
  • Payments of the bail, and payments with requests for traffic violator school, may be made in person, by mail or on-line.
  • If the ticket requires proof of vehicle registration or insurance, or proof that an equipment violation has been fixed, these issues can be handled by mail or in person.
  1. Pay the full amount on the courtesy or final notice in installments (but within 90 days of the due date.)

Most courts allow people to pay their tickets in installments (several payments), but different courts have different ways that they make these arrangements. Call your court and ask:

  • If installment plans can be set up by court employees in the Clerk's Office, if you have to have a hearing in a courtroom and have a judicial officer decide, of if your court has some other arrangement.
  • Find a phone number for your court.
  1. Appear in court and plead guilty by the deadline written on the citation or courtesy notice. Your fine and payment date will be given to you in court.

Or they may decide to fight the ticket and:

  1. Appear in court and plead not guilty by the deadline written on the citation or courtesy notice.
  • People who want to contest their citations may schedule a court trial at the Traffic Clerk’s Office.
  • The law enforcement officer who wrote the citation will be subpoenaed to appear at the trail.
  1. Request a trial by written declaration and plead not guilty by appearing in person at the Traffic Clerk’s Office -- or by writing to the court to request this kind of a trial -- before the due date. You may have to pay your full bail before this trial is scheduled.
  • People often choose this option if they live far away from the court.

NOTE: Some courts have programs that convert all or a portion of the bail to community service work. Contact the court that is hearing your case to learn if this is an option for you. Find a phone number for your court.

If you are given a traffic ticket (citation), the “Notice to Appear” will indicate which law you are charged with breaking. This may be in a box titled “Code and Section,” or it may be on a line with the word “Violation” at the beginning. Usually, the offense will be for a violation of the California Vehicle Code (VC). The citation may read something like: “40202.5 VC.”

  1. First, READ THE LAW you have been accused of breaking.

You can find California’s Vehicle Code (the collection of traffic laws) in your local
Law Library, and online. The code sections are in numeric order.

  1. After reading the actual law, decide if your driving – or your vehicle – was in violation of the law.

NOTE: You can be found guilty for most traffic offenses even if you did not intend to break the law. For example, if you were driving over the speed limit but do not believe you were driving as fast as the officer said you were driving, you still have violated the law. If, in this example, you were cited for driving 75 miles per hour in a 65 miles per hour zone but you believe you were only driving 70 miles per you, you were still speeding.

  1. If the ticket is for an infraction and you think you – or your vehicle – have not broken the law, you may plead “not guilty” and ask the court to hear your case.
  • You may make this request by mail, or in person at the court’s traffic clerk’s office.

REMEMBER:

  1. Parking tickets: The court does not handle parking tickets. If you think you shouldn’t have gotten the ticket, contact the parking agency named on the ticket and ask its staff what to do.
  2. Misdemeanor tickets: If you got a ticket for a more serious crime, like driving without a license, you must go to court.

For a "Notice to Appear" ticket, call the court listed on the ticket.

REMEMBER: Court clerks are not attorneys. They cannot give you legal advice, predict what the court will do in your situation, or tell you what you should do to clear your ticket. They also are not judicial officers. They cannot reduce your bail or dismiss your case. However, there is a lot court staff CAN do for you including:

  • Explain and answer questions about how the court works;
  • Provide the number of local lawyer referral services;
  • Give general information about court rules, procedures and practices;
  • Provide court schedules and information on how to get a case scheduled;
  • Provide information from your case file;
  • Provide court forms and instructions that are available;
  • Usually answer questions about court deadlines and how to compute them.