Traffic & Ticket Basics

What Happens When the Police Stop You?

The police officer will ask for your driver's license, your car's registration, and your proof of insurance and may ask you to step outside your car.

Types of Citations

When the police give you a "ticket," it is for 1 of 3 possible kinds of citations:

1. Parking tickets

Parking tickets are not filed with the court. A parking ticket shows the amount you must pay to the parking agency where the violation occurred. You can pay the amount on the ticket. Or if you think you should not have gotten the ticket, contact the parking agency listed on the ticket and ask them what to do. The longer you wait to pay your ticket, the more you may have to pay. Read your ticket carefully to see when your fine will increase. If you do not pay your parking ticket at all, you will not be able to renew your car's registration. Do NOT go to (or call) the court unless the parking agency has decided your case and you want to appeal the agency's decision.

2. Infraction traffic tickets

If the police stop you for driving too fast or running a red light, they can charge you with an infraction. If you have proper ID, the officer will probably write a ticket and ask you to sign it. By signing the ticket, which is also called your "Notice to Appear," you promise to (1) appear in court in person or by filing a pleading in response to the notice or (2) pay the fine. If you do not have proof of your car insurance, you will be charged with an infraction for driving without proof of insurance.

The police may also give you a “fix-it” ticket, also known as a "correctable violation," if you have broken equipment in your car, like a broken headlight. For more information on correctable violations, and how to get your certificate of correction, go to the Correctable Violations (“Fix-It” Tickets) section.

If you get a photo citation, like when a camera takes a photo of you in your car at a red light or at a railroad-grade crossing, you will get a notice in the mail about how to handle the ticket. For more information on the law and photo citations, see California Vehicle Code section 21455.5.

3. Misdemeanor traffic tickets

The police can give you a ticket for a more serious crime, like driving without a license. If the charges do not involve alcohol or drugs, the police officer can ask you to sign the ticket, also called the "Notice to Appear." Signing the "Notice to Appear" does NOT mean that you admit you are guilty. It just means that you promise to appear in court.

You must go to court on the date shown on your ticket unless the court sends a notice telling you a different date for your hearing. For more serious misdemeanors, like driving under the influence (DUI) of alcohol or drugs, you could pay up to $4,160 or more. You could also go to a city or county jail for up to 1 year. If you do not go to court, your driver’s license can be suspended and the court can charge you with another misdemeanor and issue a warrant for your arrest.

If the police officer thinks that you are driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, you will be taken into custody.

Options After Getting a Traffic Ticket (for infractions)

When you get a traffic ticket, you must act before the due date on your "Notice to Appear" runs out. You may get a courtesy notice in the mail from your court that tells you your options. But do NOT count on getting this courtesy notice. The court is not required to send it to you and you are still responsible for acting before your deadline. If you do not take action in time, your license can be suspended and the court can charge you with a misdemeanor and issue a warrant for your arrest.

When you get a traffic ticket, you can:

  1. Plead guilty and pay the traffic fine. To do this, send your payment and a copy of the citation or the courtesy notice to the courthouse. When the court receives your payment, your case will be closed. It will show up as a conviction on your DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles) record. You will get points on your driving record and your car insurance company may ask you to pay more for insurance or they may cancel your policy and tell you to find insurance elsewhere. Points can stay on your record for 3 to 7 years.

  2. Pay to go to traffic school (as long as you are eligible to go to traffic school). The court can tell you what you need to do to be able to go to traffic school. If this is your first ticket and the court lets you go to traffic school, you should not get any points on your record. Read the Traffic School section to learn more.

  3. Provide proof of correction if you got a traffic ticket for a "Correctable Violation," which is something you can fix, like broken equipment. Read the Correctable Violations (“Fix-It” Tickets) section to learn more.

  4. Ask for a trial if you believe you are not guilty. You can ask for:
    • A court trial by a judicial officer or
    • A trial by mail (also called a "trial by written declaration")

    Read the section on traffic trials for more information.

Traffic Links

This section gives you links to other sites you may be interested in related to traffic issues.  If you click on a link below, you will be leaving the Self-Help website.

California Department of Motor Vehicles

California Highway Patrol

California Office of Traffic Safety

California DMV Publications

California DMV's list of Traffic Schools 

What Should I Do if I Have an Auto Accident?  a State Bar of California pamphlet

California Vehicle Code

 

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