Before the Case
In California, a traffic case gets started when a traffic ticket is delivered to the court by a law enforcement agency. This ticket is called a citation.
When the court receives the original citation, it opens a file for the case. The court also mails a courtesy notice to the person who was cited. This courtesy notice will give information about:
- The amount of money due to the court for this ticket (called the “bail”);
- The deadline to respond to the court without additional penalties;
- Notice about appearing. For some tickets, you must appear in court in person. This is called a "mandatory appearance." In other cases, a ticket can be resolved without appearing in court;
- Information about traffic school eligibility;
- Information about the clearing a correctable citation. This is called a “fix it” ticket.
NOTE: Even if you do not get a courtesy notice, it is your responsibility to get information about deadlines or amounts due. If you do not receive a courtesy notice, contact the court before the “promise to appear” date on your ticket. Ask a clerk to let you know what you need to do.
Find contact information for the court in your county.
Read the "Notice to Appear" that is on your ticket. You will find:
- The law you have been accused of breaking;
- The deadline to pay the ticket or go to court;
- The name of the court that will decide your case, and
- What you must do to respond to the ticket.
TIP: DO NOT ignore a traffic ticket.
Fees and other penalties will be added if you miss your deadlines.
1. Parking tickets
Tickets for illegally parking, often left on your car windshield or mailed to you, are handled by the City or Agency that gave you the ticket. The Court does not handle these type of tickets.
- Follow the instructions on the ticket for how to pay or contest the ticket.
- If you contested a parking ticket through the City or Agency and lost, you have the right to appeal their decision in Superior Court. There is a $25.00 filing fee. You can't appeal to the Superior Court unless you first contested the ticket through the agency that gave you the ticket.
2. Infraction traffic tickets
An infraction is a minor offense that is usually punished with a fine, traffic school, or community service. It is not punishable by jail time.
Examples of traffic infractions:
- Moving violations – driving too fast or running a red light.
- Driving without proof of insurance for your vehicle.
- Car registration or driver’s license violations.
- Having broken equipment that you need to fix.
3. Misdemeanor traffic tickets
A misdemeanor traffic offense is a more serious offense, like reckless driving, driving under the influence (DUI), or driving on a suspended license. These offenses may be punished with jail time. These cases are heard in the Criminal Division of the Court. In any criminal case where you may face jail time you have a right to an attorney, even if you can't afford one. If you can't afford one, the Court will appoint you one.
The Traffic Section of this website only addresses infractions. If you are facing a misdemeanor traffic offense, go to your local court's website to find information about the Criminal Court Division and how to get appointed an attorney.
People have at least five ways they may clear up their traffic tickets if they are charged with an infraction.
They may decide to not fight the ticket and:
- Pay the full amount written on the courtesy or final notice on or before the due date (unless the courtesy notices stated that a mandatory appearance is required).
- Payments of the bail, and payments with requests for traffic violator school, may be made in person, by mail or on-line.
- If the ticket requires proof of vehicle registration or insurance, or proof that an equipment violation has been fixed, these issues can be handled by mail or in person.
- Pay the full amount on the courtesy or final notice in installments (but within 90 days of the due date.)
Most courts allow people to pay their tickets in installments (several payments), but different courts have different ways that they make these arrangements. Call your court and ask:
- If installment plans can be set up by court employees in the Clerk's Office, if you have to have a hearing in a courtroom and have a judicial officer decide, of if your court has some other arrangement.
- Find a phone number for your court.
- Appear in court and plead guilty by the deadline written on the citation or courtesy notice. Your fine and payment date will be given to you in court.
Or they may decide to fight the ticket and:
- Appear in court and plead not guilty by the deadline written on the citation or courtesy notice.
- People who want to contest their citations may schedule a court trial at the Traffic Clerk’s Office.
- The law enforcement officer who wrote the citation will be subpoenaed to appear at the trail.
- Request a trial by written declaration and plead not guilty by appearing in person at the Traffic Clerk’s Office -- or by writing to the court to request this kind of a trial -- before the due date. You may have to pay your full bail before this trial is scheduled.
- People often choose this option if they live far away from the court.
NOTE: Some courts have programs that convert all or a portion of the bail to community service work. Contact the court that is hearing your case to learn if this is an option for you. Find a phone number for your court.
Whether you choose to fight your ticket in court or not, it is important to understand rights.
Basic Rights in an Infraction Case
- Know the charges against you.
- Know the maximum possible punishment if found guilty.
- Enter a plea, such as guilty or not guilty.
- Have an attorney represent you in court.
- The court will not give you one, but you can hire one.
- Trial - in front of a judge or by written declaration.
- Have your trial within 45 days of your not guilty plea.
- Present witnesses or evidence to support your case.
- You can subpoena any witnesses or documents you may need.
- Listen to witness testimony and ask witnesses questions.
- Testify for yourself.
- Remain Silent.
- You can choose to not testify and say nothing.
- Your silence can't be used against you.
For a "Notice to Appear" ticket, call the court listed on the ticket.
REMEMBER: Court clerks are not attorneys. They cannot give you legal advice, predict what the court will do in your situation, or tell you what you should do to clear your ticket. They also are not judicial officers. They cannot reduce your bail or dismiss your case. However, there is a lot court staff CAN do for you including:
- Explain and answer questions about how the court works;
- Provide the number of local lawyer referral services;
- Give general information about court rules, procedures and practices;
- Provide court schedules and information on how to get a case scheduled;
- Provide information from your case file;
- Provide court forms and instructions that are available;
- Usually answer questions about court deadlines and how to compute them.