Got a Traffic Ticket - Now What?
PLEASE NOTE: This article only applies to traffic citations received in North Carolina. This article is designed for general information only. The information presented in this article should not be construed to be formal legal advice nor the formation of an attorney/client relationship.
Traffic laws are frequently violated by many people, but there are consequences to violation of those laws, primarily financial. As a private citizen or a business owner, everyone is subject to those costs if you, a member of your family, or one of your workers is convicted of a traffic violation. This article is intended to better help you understand those consequences. I have spent time as an assistant district attorney prosecuting traffic cases, and I have worked as a defense attorney defending traffic citations. Hopefully, some of my observations will be helpful to you.
First, what should you do if you get stopped and get a ticket? A good start is to cooperate with the officer. He or she is just doing their job, and the officer has some discretion as to whether to cite you for every violation that he or she finds. However, because you could be facing criminal charges, do not admit to any violations. If you admit the violation, that admission may be used against you in court. Keep your conversation with the officer to a minimum. The cooperation with the officer should consist of being polite and following the officer's instructions. I also recommend that you be polite to the officer. It has been my experience that officers frequently remember the persons that were polite to them. If the officer mentions that fact to the assistant district attorney (ADA) that handles your case, it is more likely that the prosecutor may give you a break. Also, keep in mind that some officers make notations on their copy of the citation that indicates whether a person was rude or obnoxious to them. This notation will not show up on your copy of the citation and will only hurt you in negotiating with the ADA.
Second, don't get angry. Getting angry will not do you any good and may tempt the officer to cite you for a minor violation that he or she might otherwise overlook, such as a burned out taillight or an expired inspection sticker. If the officer has decided to write you a citation, your anger is certainly not going to change the officer's mind.
Once you have received the citation, what do you do then? If the violation is "non-waivable," then you must appear in court at the time and time specified on your citation and either plead guilty or defend yourself. Examples of non-waivable offenses include driving while license revoked (DWLR) and driving while impaired (DWI). For serious traffic offenses such as these, you should strongly consider hiring an attorney to represent you. If you cannot afford an attorney, you should consider asking the judge to appoint the public defender or a private attorney to represent you. (Some counties in North Carolina have public defender's offices, but most do not. If there is no public defender office in the county where you must appear, then the judge may appoint a private attorney to represent you.) Depending on your prior criminal record, a conviction for some non-waivable offenses could result in active jail time and a fine. Therefore, if you have a prior criminal record, it can be more important to at least consult with an attorney before appearing in court.
If the traffic violation is minor and is considered "waivable," you can pay the ticket without appearing in court. However, this is not always a good idea. However, keep in mind that, by paying the citation, you are pleading guilty to the offense and inviting all of the consequences that may be imposed by your insurance company and the North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles. If the offense is sufficiently minor, such as a citation for an expired inspection sticker, you can pay the citation without incurring insurance points or driver's license points (see discussion below of the point system). If you do decide to pay the citation, (1)pay it on time, (2) pay the payment with a cashier's check, not a money order (money orders are more difficult to trace if lost in the mail), and (3) hand deliver the payment to the Clerk of Court or send the payment by commercial delivery service (such as Fed-Ex or UPS), or by certified mail so that you have proof the payment was received and can track the payment if necessary. If you pay in person, the Clerk should give you a receipt that indicates your case docket number, how much you paid, and what the payment was for. If you send the payment by mail or carrier, provide the Clerk of Court with a stamped, self-addressed envelope in which to return the receipt and include a note asking the Clerk to return the receipt in the provided envelope. Also, you should keep the receipt in a safe place to guard against administrative errors in logging your payment.
However, before you pay a citation, keep in mind that many waivable offenses have financial consequences that are not immediately apparent but can continue for years. In those cases, rather than blindly paying the ticket, you may want to hire an attorney to help you through the court system and possibly minimize the consequences. The consequences of a seemingly minor citation can be severe. For example, a conviction for speeding 81 mph in a 70 mph zone in N.C. will cause your license to be revoked for at least 60 days and will cause your insurance company to impose four (4) insurance points, resulting in a 90% rate increase for the next three years! If, for example, your insurance coverage cost you $1000.00 per year before such a conviction, then your insurance would cost you $1,900.00 per year after a conviction for speeding 81 mph in a 70 mph zone. If you hire an attorney to represent you, that attorney might be able to convince the assistant district attorney to reduce the citation to a lesser violation that might protect your privilege to drive and/or prevent your insurance rates from increasing.
Even if you decide to pay a traffic citation rather than fight it, before paying the citation, you should consult an attorney so that you will understand the consequences of pleading guilty. Many attorneys, including myself, will give you a free telephone consultation and explain your options. Other reasons for consulting an attorney on a traffic citation include these: (1) The district attorney offices in different counties in North Carolina deal with traffic citations differently, with wide variations from county to county. Unless you consult with a local attorney, you will not know what to expect with your citation in that county. (2) If you hire an attorney, except for DWI, DWLR, and other serious traffic offenses, you will usually not need to come to court. (3) An experienced traffic attorney is usually more likely than a non-lawyer to be able to achieve a good result. An experienced traffic attorney knows the local court system, the law, the court rules, the local prosecutors, and the local judges and will know what results to expect in most cases.
If you are considering acting as your own attorney, keep in mind that it is frequently a bad idea. You will be going up against an experienced, licensed Assistant District Attorney, who will probably prevail over you at trial. Before that ADA got to court, he or she graduated from a four year college, completed three years of law school training, passed a difficult two day bar examination, and probably has already tried and convicted multiple other defendants. You may consider talking to the DA and asking for a reduction yourself. However, unless you speak with an attorney before you come to court, you may not have any idea what kind of offer to expect from the ADA or whether any plea offer made by the ADA is reasonable. You should speak with an attorney before you go to court so that you are better informed as to whether to accept a plea offer. Also, it is not a good idea to go to trial without an attorney by your side, as you will be at a severe disadvantage at trial unless you are an attorney.
Last, I need to mention North Carolina's point systems. If you are convicted of a moving violation, either because you plead guilty or because you were convicted after a trial, then there are consequences in the form of points that are administratively applied. There are two systems for points, - insurance points and driver's license points. Insurance points are assigned by your insurance company, and driver's license points are assigned by the North Carolina Department of Motor Vehicles. Insurance points determine your insurance rates, and driver's license points determine whether you can keep your privilege to drive. A table showing the insurance points assessed by insurance companies in North Carolina is on the Insurance Commissioner's website at . (Click on the link on that page to "Safe Driver Incentive Plan.")
Insurance points translate to increased insurance rates. Insurance points are assigned based on the relative severity of various traffic violations and on the number and severity of accidents the driver has. For example, a driver with a clean record with a conviction of speeding 81 mph in a 70 mph zone will cause four (4) insurance points to be assessed, resulting in a 90% insurance rate increase for the next three years. Also, that same conviction will cause the driver's license to be suspended.
Driver's license points are imposed by the N.C. Department of Motor Vehicles upon a report from a Clerk of Court office that a person has been convicted of a traffic offense. Driver's license points affect your ability to continue to have the privilege to drive in North Carolina. Under North Carolina law, if you accumulate sufficient points, your license will be suspended for at least 60 days.
In summary, if you get a ticket, be polite and cooperative with the officer. After you receive the ticket, consider hiring a local attorney. At a minimum, you should consult with a local attorney to help you determine the proper course of action.