I got a California traffic ticket, can I fight it? I was stopped by a cop in California and issued a California traffic ticket or a traffic citation do I have to go to court? I got a California traffic ticket but I won’t go to jail because it’s just a ticket right? These are questions I get everyday by phone and email from potential clients. There is a lot of confusion about what happens when you get a California traffic ticket. I even get California lawyers calling me all the time asking me what to do when their clients get a citation or even what to do with their own California traffic ticket.
The best way to analyze the situation when you receive a California traffic ticket is to figure out what type of charges you are actually facing. The reason for this is that signing a California traffic ticket is simply a promise to appear in court on a specific date and time. The ticket does not control what type of charges you are facing and it does not control what will happen with your case. You can “get a ticket” for any level of offense in Calfornia so your California traffic ticket could be
- non moving traffic infraction that is punishable only by a fine
- a more complicated traffic matter such a a moving violation than can affect your driving record and insurance rates
- a misdemeanor that could lead to probation or time in the county jail
- a felony that could send you to state prison.
Again, the important issue is not whether or not they took you to jail or “just gave you a ticket”, the important issue is what kind of charges you are dealing with when you get to court. The arrest (or release on your signed promise to appear) is a completely seperate issue from what will happen when you are prosecuted for the underlying charges in court. The issuing of a ticket is simply a promise to appear in court, think of it as an official notice. The notice does not control the outcome of the case, it simply notifies you that a case has begun. Let’s look at a few examples.
California Traffic Ticket Scenarios that can get kind of dicey
Say for example Jane Doe received a ticket for petty theft. In this example Jane Doe has a few prior convictions from the 1980’s when she was a young girl. She had some issues with the law as a teenager but now she has been out of trouble for 30 years and she has kids and grandkids too. She hasn’t even run a stop sign since 1993. So when she got stopped by security at target and accused of petty theft she was scared to death. Were they going to call the police? Would the police arrest her? Would she go to jail? Would she go to prison?
She was completely relieved when after about an hour of paperwork with loss prevention the Los Angeles Police Department showed up and simply issued her a California traffic ticket. “Phew!, that was a close one, good thing I only got a ticket”. Jane figured the past was the past and she would probably have to pay a fine or maybe do some community service when the court date arrived. When she showed up to see the judge, things took a turn for the worse. She was taken into custody and her bail was set at $250,000. A few weeks later she signed a plea deal with her public defender to avoid a longer sentence and she was on her way to state prison for a 32 month term. This is a prime example of how “just a ticket” can end up being a very serious offense. Another ticket situation that can get ugly in a petty theft type situation is an Estes Robbery. In this situation, you could show up for court on what you expect to be “just a ticket” to find out that the DA has filed a felony complaint.
Another example of how things can be pretty serious when it’s “just a ticket” would be cite releases for existing warrants throughout Southern California. The jail system in counties such as Los Angeles, Riverside, and San Bernardino are so overwhelmed with inmates that officers will often “cite release” people they encounter with arrest warrants in these counties. You may be informed by the officer that you have a warrant for $10K, $50K, or even $100K and you are thinking “oh shit, I’m going to jail”. Next thing you know the officer is writing you a California traffic ticket and letting you go! This doesn’t mean the warrant is gone by any means and it doesn’t mean that you won’t face serious penalties from the violation that triggered the warrant. It simply means that the officer was too busy to take you downtown and book you or that the jail has a policy of “citing out” people for these types of warrants due to overcrowding.
If you ignore the citation, when the court date comes the court will issue an even larger warrant than the original warrant and your potential penalty will be increased due to the additional failure to appear. Even if you do show up, you could be placed in custody immediately upon your arrival in the courtroom and then face trial, a probation violation hearing, or sentencing. If you were cite released on a warrant, it’s not “just a ticket”, you need to talk to a lawyer immediately about how to fix it and minimize the damage.
We have looked at a few examples where “just a ticket” actually turns out to be a pretty serious situation. How about the other end of the spectrum? Are there times where the ticket seems very serious but in reality things end up working out just fine? Absolutely.
The most common example here would be traffic offenses that can be charged as misdemeanors or infractions such as driving on a suspended license under VC 14601, driving without a license under VC 12500, failure to appear under VC 40508(a), failure to pay under 40508(b), and various other mid level traffic offenses like driving the wrong way on a one way street and many commercial vehicle offenses. In these type of cases many clients will call me in a panic. “I got a ticket but the officer checked the misdemeanor box, am I going to prison? Will I be deported?”
For starters, nobody is going to prison on a misdemeanor. A misdemeanor by definition is a crime punishable only by confinement in the county jail. Second, many of these cases are routinely processed by the court as infractions even though the officer checked the “misdemeanor” box on the ticket. The real tricky part here is that every court has their own policies on these types of things. So in some courts a ticket for driving without a license is no big deal even if the officer checked the misdemeanor box. If you go to one of these courts, the worst thing that will happen is you pay a fine. In other courts however, you could have a ticket for driving without a license that’s listed as an infraction on the ticket, but when you get to court you are charged with a misdemeanor and taken into custody! In the worst example, someone with immigration issues in this situation goes to court on what they think will be a fine and they end in custody and then they face immigration proceedings which lead to deportation. Again, the lesson here is that the ticket does not control the outcome, the outcome is governed by how the case is prosecuted in court.
If you have received a ticket and you aren’t sure if the situation is serious or not, give me a call at 800-797-8406, or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I will give you a free consultation and let you know quickly whether this is a simple situation you can handle on your own, or if it’s something more serious and you should consider retaining an attorney.