This guide will review the most common traffic tickets and hopefully answer some questions.
VIRGINIA TRAFFIC CASES BY THE NUMBERS
According to a 2012 Fairfax News article, during the Commonwealth's 2010 fiscal year, Virginia's courts accumulated $238,314,876 from all traffic tickets. Needless to say, $238 million means that quite a few traffic tickets were issued on Virginia's 75,000 miles of roadway. According to Fairfax News, which cites analysis from AAA Mid-Atlantic, $101 million in revenue was collected from speeding infractions alone.
NOT ALL TRAFFIC TICKETS ARE THE SAME
When a driver is stopped by a police officer and subsequently issued a Virginia Uniform Summons (commonly referred to as a traffic ticket) for a violation of state law or a county/city ordinance, he/she may be charged with a traffic infraction, misdemeanor, or a civil violation. A misdemeanor is a criminal charge which carries a maximum punishment of 12 months in jail and or a $2,500 fine. A traffic infraction is a violation of law with the maximum punishment no greater than that of a class 4 misdemeanor (currently $250), which is neither a felony nor a misdemeanor. Certain violations which arise out of operation of a motor vehicle, can lead to a civil penalty. Depending upon the violation which one is charged to have committed, the consequences for a conviction of an offense can vary dramatically. Some offenses are pre-payable through the clerk's office using the Supreme Court of Virginia Uniform Fine Schedule. Other infractions can be remedied prior to appearing in court and will be dismissed upon appearance at the scheduled trial date. Some of these violations require that court costs be assessed and others do not.
COMMON TRAFFIC MISDEMEANORS
The most common traffic related misdemeanor is reckless driving. Reckless driving is a class 1 misdemeanor and a conviction can lead to a hefty fine, suspension of driver's license, jail, and demerit points assessed by the DMV. There are currently over a dozen different reckless driving statutes in the Code of Virginia. One of the most common reckless driving charges is speeding 20 miles per hour or more above the speed limit or simply exceeding 80 miles per hour. Driving under suspension/revocation is a class 1 misdemeanor which often times leads to a mandatory suspension of a defendant's driver's license. Driving under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs is also a class 1 misdemeanor, but a detailed discussion on that topic will be saved for another day.
DO I REALLY NEED TO HIRE AN ATTORNEY FOR A TRAFFIC TICKET?
This is one of the most common questions I field from friends and associates when discussing criminal and traffic defense. The answer to this question is simple and complex all at the same time; it depends. One of the main factors which should be considered when receiving a traffic summons is, what is the charge with which one is accused of committing? As stated before, a misdemeanor conviction can lead to jail time, large fines, and/or suspension of driving privileges. Certain traffic infractions can be remedied prior to the court date and be dismissed without having a trial. If a defendant elects to prepay the ticket, they are pleading guilty to the offense and will be assessed a fine and costs based on the charge. The pre-payment schedule for generic speeding is $6 for every mile per hour over the speed limit and demerit points from the DMV will be assessed accordingly. A decision on whether or not to hire an attorney to represent you in traffic court should be based in part on the potential consequences of a conviction. If someone is charged with an infraction that can be remedied prior to court, an attorney may not be needed. However, a charge that would carry the possibility of jail should always be treated with the utmost concern by a defendant.
WHAT ARE WAYS TO LIMIT CONSEQUENCES OF A CONVICTION?
There are certain factors that can limit the consequences of a conviction for a traffic infraction or misdemeanor involving a motor vehicle. Many courts have taken these into consideration before disposition in a case. The first is having a clean driving record. A judge that finds the evidence sufficient to convict a defendant of reckless driving by speed, may be willing to reduce the charge if the defendant has a good driving record. A judge will not be as willing to reduce the charge for someone with -11 points as they would be for a defendant with +5 points on their driving record. A recent (5 years or so) conviction for a similar traffic offense will also restrict the willingness of a judge to amend a charge. Another useful way to aid in obtaining a favorable outcome in certain traffic cases is completion of an approved driver's improvement clinic. This strategy will not always be available if the defendant has a history of traffic infractions. The most important factor that a judge will usually consider is whether or not the defendant was polite and cooperative with the officer or trooper. If a defendant is belligerent or confrontational with the officer, most if not all of the good points will be outweighed by said defendant's poor attitude.
WHAT SHOULD I DO AFTER I RECEIVE A TRAFFIC TICKET AND BEFORE MY COURT DATE?
One of the first things that should be done after receiving a traffic ticket is to consult an attorney that regularly represents clients in similar situations. Another important factor to consider when choosing an attorney to represent you in court is the attorney's familiarity with the jurisdiction (city/county). An attorney that is familiar with the particular jurisdiction will be better suited to provide advice concerning the available options and how to handle your matter. A traffic ticket is often the first and only time a person will have to deal with the criminal justice system. The thought of going before a judge alone to defend oneself against a misdemeanor or traffic infraction makes some people uneasy and nervous. This is certainly understandable as one's liberty and financial wellbeing may be at risk. Traffic convictions can pile up if they are not taken seriously and can lead to many issues further down the road.
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