Traffic & Ticket Basics

What Happens When You Get a Traffic Ticket?

The 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. If the officer charges you with a violation, he or she will present a “Notice to Appear” listing the charges and ask you to sign the form. Signing the “ticket” is not an admission of guilt but is a promise to appear in the listed court no later than the listed date. If you refuse to sign the ticket the officer is required by law to take you into custody and present you before a judge for arraignment on the charges.

As of May 1, 2017 you should receive a notice from the court reminding you of the promise to appear. You must appear no later than the date given on the ticket regardless of whether you receive a notice.

Types of Citations

When an officer gives you a ticket, it is for one of three possible kinds of citations:

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. (You can also see if the parking agency has a website with instructions about how to handle your parking ticket.) 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.

If you are stopped for a traffic offense such as driving too fast or running a red light, you can be charged 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 another infraction for driving without proof of insurance. When a non-owner is ticketed for correctable violations the owner of the vehicle is also charged with an infraction, and an “owner responsibility” ticket is mailed to his or her address.

The officer may also give you a “fix-it” ticket, for a “correctable violation,” if your car has broken equipment, 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 below.

If you get a photo citation, such as 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.

You can also get a ticket for a more serious crime, like driving without a license. If the charges do not involve alcohol or drugs, the 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 close to $5,000. You could also go to a city or county jail for up to one 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 officer thinks that you are driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs, you will be taken into custody.

Do You Have to Post Bail for Your Traffic Infraction?

When traffic bail is not required
You have the right to appear in court for arraignment to contest the alleged traffic infraction without prior deposit of bail. (Cal. Rules of Court, rule 4.105.) You must appear as instructed on the citation, even if you do not receive a courtesy notice. When you appear for an arraignment hearing, you will enter a plea. If you plead not guilty at arraignment, you may ask for a court trial on a separate date.

You may choose to contest your ticket without appearing in front of the judge for arraignment. You may do that at the traffic clerk’s office in the courthouse or by mail. In either case, setting the matter for a trial without appearing before a judge will require that you deposit the bail amount along with the request.

The court may require payment of bail at arraignment before trial if:

  • You do not sign a promise to appear as ordered by the court; or
  • The court finds (and states the reasons for the findings) that, based on the circumstances of your particular case, you are unlikely to appear without a deposit of bail.

(Cal. Rules of Court, rule 4.105(c).)

When traffic bail is required
Post (pay) and forfeit bail. If you do not wish to challenge your traffic citation—and there is no mandatory court appearance—you must pay the bail for non-correctable violations, and provide proof of correction and pay the fees for any correctable violations by the due date on the citation. The court will report a conviction for any non-correctable violations to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).

State your intention to plead not guilty and request a trial date. If you want to plead not guilty and schedule a court trial, you may tell the court, in person or in writing that you intend to plead not guilty. Your case will be set for an arraignment and trial date on the same day, unless you request arraignment and trial on separate days. To take advantage of this convenience, deposit of traffic bail is required. (See Veh. Code, § 40519(a).) If you are found not guilty at trial, your bail will be returned.

Plead not guilty in writing and request a trial date. If you want to plead not guilty in writing and schedule a court trial, you may do so by mail or in person with the clerk. Your case will be set for an arraignment and trial date on the same day, unless you request arraignment and trial on separate days. To take advantage of this convenience, deposit of traffic bail is required. (See Veh. Code, § 40519(b).) If you are found not guilty at trial, your bail will be returned.

Trial by written declaration. You may avoid all court appearances by choosing to have a trial by written declaration. This means that instead of going to court to contest your case, you and the citing officer provide testimony and any evidence in writing. (See Veh. Code, § 40902.) You must post the bail amount to use this procedure. If you are found not guilty, your bail will be returned. (See further discussion below, under “Trial by Written Declaration,” for more information about this procedure.) You must exercise this option on or before the “date to appear” on your citation.

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. As of May 1, 2017 all courts are required to mail a reminder notice to you that explains your options. You are still responsible for acting before the date listed in your “Notice to Appear.” Failure to appear at court or take action as instructed on your ticket or notices from the court may result in suspension of your license, and the court can charge you with a misdemeanor or infraction and issue a warrant for your arrest. Your failure to appear may also result in other fines or assessments.

Generally, when you get a traffic ticket, you can:

  1. Plead guilty and pay the traffic fine. You may plead guilty and pay the fine, also referred to as “bail.” You may send your payment and a copy of the citation or the reminder notice to the courthouse. If your citation includes correctable violations, such as expired registration, be sure to include the proof of correction. If it has not been corrected, you must appear in court to determine the proper fine amount.
    • When the court receives your payment, your case will be closed. You may also contact the court to find out the amount of your fine. All courts have websites that include information about traffic tickets, including information about how to pay traffic fines. Some courts allow online payment.
    • Once you have paid your fine, the violation will show up as a conviction on your Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) 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 three to seven years. If you are unable to pay the full amount for the ticket due to financial hardship, when you appear in court you may ask the court to consider your ability to pay and reduce the amount ordered for the conviction, or you may request community service or a payment plan.

  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. If you are unable to pay the full amount for the ticket due to financial hardship, if you appear in court you may ask the court to consider your inability to pay and reduce the fee for traffic school for the eligible offenses.
  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. Appear at court. You can appear at court on the date that is on the ticket or contact the court prior to the appearance date on the traffic ticket and request any of the following:
    1. you can request an arraignment to enter your plea where you may:
      1. tell the court you want to plead guilty, be notified of the fine amount, and discuss how to pay your fine or ask that the court consider your ability to pay and consider a reduction, approve community service, or be placed on a payment plan, or
      2. you can plead “no contest” or “not guilty” and ask for a trial date;
    2. 2. you can also ask the court to have your matter decided by trial by written declaration, which requires that you post the full bail amount. See the section below on Traffic Trials for more information. In some other circumstances, when you want to set a trial date without appearing first at arraignment you may have to post bail (Veh. Code, § 40519). If you elect a trial by declaration, you will also be required to post bail (Veh. Code, § 40902).

  5. Ask for a trial if you believe you are not guilty.
    On the date on your ticket or “Notice to Appear,” or other date provided in a reminder notice, you must appear and ask the court for a trial. You may also call the court in advance of these dates to make this request. You can ask for:
    • A court trial by a judicial officer; or
    • A trial by mail (also called a “trial by written declaration”).

Except under limited circumstances as provided by California law, payment of bail for a traffic infraction is not required to contest your ticket. If you wish to schedule a trial without appearing first for an arraignment or you wish to have a trial by written declaration, you must pay the full bail which will be returned if you are found not guilty and the case is dismissed. See Vehicle Code sections 40519 and 40902.

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