Skip to main content

Straight Talk on the Anatomy of a Civil Infraction

Posted by attorney Lisa Schmidt

A civil infraction is the least serious kind of criminal case. In fact, because there is no threat of jail or prison and no constitutional right to an attorney, these matters are often called “quasi-criminal." The most typical civil infractions are traffic offenses (such as speeding) and violations of city ordinances.

For illustration purposes, consider the story of Anna, a single mother who is running late to pick her daughter up from school. In her haste, Anna is traveling 85 miles per hour on a local expressway with a posted speed limit of 70. She is stopped by a patrol officer.

Because many civil infractions are traffic-related, they usually start with a traffic stop. The first thing that the officer (for this example assume it is a man) usually asks for is your license and registration. It is best to be courteous, cooperate and give truthful and current information. Doing otherwise can cause you to be charged with additional, more serious offenses.

Next the officer will likely ask, “Do you know why I pulled you over?" He is looking for a confession. Say “no" or “I don’t know" or some variation thereon, or politely decline to answer. You have the right not to incriminate yourself. Do not volunteer information.

In our example, Anna is having a bad day. Her car is similar to one suspected in a nearby robbery, so the officer asks her to step out of the vehicle. It is always wise to cooperate with officers’ instructions. Being belligerent or losing your temper will only aggravate the officer and could even result in felony charges for resisting or obstructing an officer.

The officer then asks to search her vehicle. He is looking for consent. The police generally need consent or a warrant to search a person’s property, including his or her car, but if Anna consents to the search, the police have the right to search every part of the vehicle. You have the right to politely refuse the search.

Finding nothing, the officer writes Anna a ticket for speeding and sends her on her way. A civil infraction will never lead to an arrest on its own. A civil infraction ticket will usually require the defendant to appear at the local District Court within 14 days of the incident. Anna can expect 2-3 court appearances to address the civil infraction.

The first hearing is called the Arraignment. At this hearing Anna will have the charges explained to her and can choose to plead responsible or not responsible and request a formal hearing.

In many courts, Anna would be required to appear for a pretrial conference. This is a chance for Anna (or her retained attorney) to negotiate a plea with the prosecutor or city attorney. This plea could involve reduced fines or fewer points on Anna’s driver’s license. If no deal can be reached, then Anna can chose to continue to the formal hearing.

At the formal hearing the prosecutor or city attorney must present evidence that the civil infraction occurred. This hearing employs a “preponderance of the evidence" standard, which amounts to the tipping of the scales in favor of responsibility. Anna’s retained attorney can then put on evidence that she is not responsible and cross examine any witnesses presented by the prosecutor or civil attorney. If it appears more likely than not that the civil infraction occurred, the judge will find her responsible and impose penalties.

The penalties for a civil infraction include fines and costs imposed at the judge’s discretion but usually between $100 and $500. In addition, the Secretary of State will receive notice of the conviction and will impose a certain number of points on Anna’s license. Speeding is a 2 point ticket. If Anna receives 12 points in 2 years her license will be suspended. Increased points can also result in increased insurance premiums.

However, in December 2010, the Michigan legislature put in place a Basic Driver Improvement Course. People who are eligible may take this class after receiving a ticket (at a cost of no more than $100) to avoid receiving points on their licenses. This class can only be taken once, but would prohibit their insurance companies from learning of the infraction and increasing their rates.

This is a general overview of the procedure involved in a civil infraction. Different courts may vary from this procedure and particular cases may require different or additional hearings, but this information will at least give you an idea of what to expect if you are ever in a position like Anna’s.

(This content was originally posted on

Author of this guide:

Was this guide helpful?