Facing Jail Time For An Infraction Or Ordinance Violation? What Are Your Options?

Whether you've recently discovered your driver's license was suspended for failure to pay a speeding ticket or you've been summoned to court to respond to a charge of public intoxication, you may be wondering about your next steps -- and how to prevent this legal issue from complicating your life in the future. What can you do to fight back against unfair charges or clear up past legal messes to avoid serving time in jail? Read on to learn more about the practical effects of infraction or ordinance violations, as well as what you can do to resolve these issues quickly. 

How are infractions or ordinance violations different from misdemeanors?

When you receive a speeding ticket, noise complaint, or other infraction or ordinance violation, you're often given two choices -- appear to contest the ticket, or admit guilt and pay a fine (or perform community service). These violations are civil in nature, rather than criminal, and won't appear as convictions on a criminal record. Because these are civil charges, you may not have the right to request a jury trial, instead conducting a bench trial before a single judge.

The civil nature of these violations doesn't mean you can't spend time in jail for breaking them. If you fail to pay a speeding ticket or appear in court to contest your speeding ticket, your license can be automatically suspended -- and if you're pulled over with a suspended driver's license (even if you were unaware of the suspension), you could be arrested and charged with a crime. If you fail to appear at a hearing for an ordinance violation, a bench warrant can be issued for your arrest, allowing police to take you into custody the next time you encounter them.

What should you do if you're charged with an infraction or ordinance violation?

The most important thing is to attend all hearings and court appearances. Failure to appear at a scheduled hearing can be viewed by the court as contempt, subjecting you to financial sanctions (like additional fines and court fees) or even a bench warrant for your arrest. If you've received a traffic ticket or ordinance violation notice from your city, be sure to write down any important dates, times, and locations in a secure place so that you'll be reminded to appear. You may also want to check with the court clerk to ensure your contact information is correct -- if court notifications are being sent to the wrong address, you could suffer real-world consequences even if you're completely unaware of the proceedings going on in your absence. 

Depending upon the nature of the charge, you may also want to consider hiring an attorney. Admission (or conviction) of certain ordinance violations can affect your driver's license or even your ability to hold certain jobs. For example, pleading guilty to violating a city ordinance about consuming alcohol in public could prevent you from taking a job with the city government. Missing a court appearance and becoming subject to arrest for contempt could cost you your current job if you're unable to make bail before you're scheduled to report. Having legal counsel can help you avoid some of these consequences by fighting back against the charges at trial or negotiating a favorable agreement (like payment of a fine in lieu of an admission of guilt). 

If you've been arrested for driving while suspended, you'll often want legal counsel as well. In some states, committing certain traffic infractions without a valid license could rise to criminal misdemeanor charges, subjecting you to a potential prison sentence or hefty fine. In Washington, D.C., driving with a suspended license could cost you up to $2,500 and a year in prison. However, if your trial attorney is able to help you prove your vehicle was malfunctioning or you were unaware of your license suspension, the potential penalties to be levied against you will be much less severe.