Traffic laws differ slightly from state to state, but throughout the United States, most traffic offenses are considered to be infractions. Infractions refer to non-criminal offenses that may result in fines and other penalties, but that will not result in jail time or a criminal record. In some cases, however, certain behavior behind the wheel will actually be considered a misdemeanor.
Whenever you break the law, the offense that you commit is classified into a category of offenses. The categories of offenses include:
When you break a law, such as speeding or littering, you have done something wrong, but not something that is serious enough that you actually deserve to be arrested and charged for it. Infractions are not criminal actions, but instead you receive a citation for your improper actions. You still have to go to court or otherwise make things right with law enforcement (like by paying your ticket), but you aren't in as much trouble as you would be in if you committed a serious offense. The infraction isn't usually going to show up in background checks and when asked if you have been arrested or charged with a crime, you don't have to count infractions.
Misdemeanors and felonies, on the other hand, rise to a different level. Offenses that are considered misdemeanors and felonies are listed in the criminal/penal code of the relevant state and can result in you actually being arrested, taken to the police station, fingerprinted and formally charged.
Most of the time when you are pulled over for a traffic offense, you receive a ticket or a citation for an infraction. Some common examples of traffic infractions include:
When a behavior is worse than simply not obeying a simple driving regulation, however, the offense may be more serious. Some examples of possible misdemeanors that can result from behavior behind the wheel include:
In some cases, if you commit these offenses multiple times, the actions can actually result in felony charges. For example, a third DUI or DWI offense can sometimes result in a felony conviction and a sentence of more than one year of jail time.
If you are given a traffic citation, you usually have the option to arrange a plea bargain. This may allow you to avoid getting points on your license which can raise your insurance rates and eventually lead to you losing your license if you get too many points within a set period of time.
If you face misdemeanor or felony charges, on the other hand, it may be more difficult to arrange to plea to lesser charges. Your ability to do so is usually at the discretion of the prosecutor, although certain states may have diversion programs for first offenders that allow for individuals to avoid criminal charges. Typically, though, if you plead down a misdemeanor charge (like for drunk driving), you will be pleading down to a lesser misdemeanor or pleading down to a lesser criminal penalty (for example, drunk driving may be reduced to a "wet reckless").
Whenever you receive any type of traffic citation, it is a good idea to consult with an experienced attorney. Your lawyer can help you to understand the possible penalties you face and can help you to take whatever steps are available to minimize the consequences of your actions on your driving record and on your permanent criminal record.