You probably think of a traffic violation as a slap on the wrist. You get caught speeding a little, you get a ticket. You roll through a stop sign, you get a ticket. You begrudgingly pay the fine and move on. In most situations, this is a civil matter between you and the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). But not every traffic violation is so minor. There are numerous ways in which breaking the rules of the road becomes a criminal offense, particularly if anyone gets hurt. Read on to find out when it's time to hire an attorney.

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Every state has traffic violations that are too serious to be civil tickets. Instead, they are criminal offenses. According to Florida defense firm, Finebloom, Haenel & Higgins, some of the most common examples of criminal traffic violations include but are not limited to:

  • Reckless driving
  • Hit and run
  • Driving without a license or on a suspended license
  • Driving without the minimum required auto insurance
  • Vehicular assault and vehicular homicide
  • Fleeing from the police

Summary Offenses

Certain first-time criminal traffic violations that do not result in serious injuries or fatalities are charged as summary offenses. These are the lowest level of criminal offense. Not every state has summary offenses or calls them by this name. For example, Pennsylvania uses the term summary offense, yet Illinois refers to these low-level crimes as petty offenses. They are either punished without jail time or only up to a few months. In some states, if you plead guilty to or are convicted of a summary offense, it does not create a permanent criminal record. If you are facing a summary offense and are unsure of the consequences, speak with a traffic attorney right away.


Misdemeanors can result in months or more than one year in jail and fines. You may also be sentenced to probation, community service, restitution, alcohol or driving education, and/or substance abuse counseling depending on the laws in your state.

DUI/DWIs are often misdemeanors, unless you cause another person injury or have previous DUI/DWIs on your record, in which case you may be charged with a felony. The Governors Highway Safety Association provides a good overview of state’s DUI/DWI laws and penalties.

An attorney can help you reduce the DUI/DWI charge to a less serious offense, depending on the circumstances of your case. “In Michigan we have something called ‘Super Drunk,’ and that applies to a BAC of .17 or above,” says DUI defense attorney Patrick Barone. “If the person has a BAC of 17 or above, some prosecutors in some jurisdictions won’t offer any reduction whatsoever. Other prosecutors have their own arbitrary cutoffs when they will or won’t offer a reduction. Having said all that and providing there’s no accident, there’s no prior offenses, the person didn’t treat the police disrespectfully, they didn’t refuse the breath test, they were relatively complaint—if all that is in line, typical reduction would be from an Operating While Intoxicated to an Operating While Visibly Impaired.” An attorney can discuss how reducing charges will work for you in your state.

In many states, you can agree to pay a set fine for certain misdemeanor traffic offenses instead of fighting the charge in court. You need to be aware that this means you are pleading guilty to a crime. You will have a permanent misdemeanor offense on your record, which could have many consequences. A misdemeanor crime on your record could make it more difficult to get a job, obtain private financial aid for school, or obtain a professional license. It could also lead you to face a higher charge or harsher punishment if you are charged with another crime in the future. Before you pay the fine for a traffic violation, speak with your lawyer about your rights and legal options.


It is more common to be charged with a felony traffic offense if you have previous offenses on your record or the current incident injured or killed one or more individuals. For a felony offense, you face years in prison, years of probation, and high fines.

It is best to avoid having a felony on your record. The consequences of a criminal conviction are so pervasive and severe, the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, and the American Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Section created The National Inventory of Collateral Consequences of Conviction. With a felony conviction, you could have an extremely hard time gaining an education, getting hired for a job, obtaining a professional license, finding an affordable place to live, and traveling abroad. A felony conviction can impact your immigration status or your child custody and visitation schedule. In many states, felons lose the right to vote for a period of time. You will also lose your right to own firearms for the rest of your life. When facing a traffic felony, you need to speak with a local criminal defense attorney who specifically handles traffic violations.

Failure to Appear

If you receive a traffic ticket and you are not immediately arrested for a traffic offense, you need to appear in court. Ignoring the date and time of the court hearing on the ticket can lead to significant consequences. This failure to appear can cause you to be found guilty of the crime and charged additional fines. Your ticket may be sent to collections immediately or after certain time. In some states, like California, the failure to appear could be treated as an additional crime.

If you continue to ignore the matter, the consequences can get worse. Your license may be suspended. Depending on the severity of the offense or the amount in which you are arrears, an arrest warrant can be issued in your name. If you have an encounter with the police after a warrant is issued, you could be immediately arrested.

A traffic ticket or criminal charge will not go away. If you were ticketed, you need to address the matter. You have the right to handle it yourself. However, if you are not sure of what to do or how to best defend yourself, contact a criminal defense lawyer who handles traffic issues. It never hurts to schedule a free consultation with one or two attorneys to discuss your rights and options regarding traffic violations.