Traffic offenses occur when motorists violate ordinances or state laws relating to the movement and control of traffic. These driving-related offenses can be classified as infractions (also called "violations"), misdemeanors, and felonies. How a particular traffic offense is classified generally depends on the jurisdiction, the offender's prior convictions, and whether the offense involved injuries, death, or property damage.
This article provides an overview of common types of traffic offenses, how they are typically classified, and the potential penalties for convictions.
Most driving-related offenses are classified as infractions. Traffic infractions are typically "strict liability" offenses, meaning proof of the driver's intent isn't required for a conviction—establishing that the driver committed the act (regardless of what he or she was thinking) is sufficient.
Common strict liability traffic infractions include:
Many states further categorize traffic infractions into moving and nonmoving violations. Moving infractions occur when a motorist violates a traffic law while the vehicle is in motion, such as speeding or unlawful passing. Nonmoving infractions, on the other hand, include parking offenses and violations related to defective equipment on the vehicle. Generally, moving infractions are more serious than nonmoving infractions.
A traffic infraction is generally considered a minor offense and results in only a fine and demerit points on the driver's record. (In some states, a driver who accumulates a certain number of points will face a license suspension.) Because a traffic infraction isn't punishable by imprisonment, an offender generally doesn't have the constitutional rights associated with criminal offenses, such as a court-appointed attorney or jury trial.
Some driving-related offenses are crimes and are classified as either misdemeanors or felonies. A traffic crime is generally any traffic offense that's punishable by imprisonment.
A misdemeanor traffic offense is more serious than an infraction but less serious than a felony. In most states, the maximum sentence for a misdemeanor is one year in county jail. On the other hand, felonies are the most serious criminal offense and typically carry more than one year in state prison.
Other penalties for criminal traffic convictions can include fines, probation or parole, community service, driver's license suspension, vehicle immobilization or impoundment, and demerit points added to the offender's driving record. Generally, more points are assigned to misdemeanor and felony traffic offenses than to traffic infractions.
Offenders accused of criminal traffic offenses are entitled to the constitutional protections provided to all criminal defendants.
The types of traffic offenses that are classified as misdemeanors and felonies vary by jurisdiction. Some traffic offenses that would normally be classified as infractions can be elevated to criminal offenses in certain circumstances. For example, in some states, speeding—which is usually an infraction—is a misdemeanor if the offender drives more than 80 miles per hour or exceeds the speed limit by 20 miles per hour or more.
Likewise, traffic offenses that are generally misdemeanors can be classified as felonies in some situations. Generally, a misdemeanor is elevated to a felony for subsequent convictions or if the offense involves property damage, injuries, death, or other aggravating factors. Common examples of driving-related offenses that are classified as crimes include:
DUI. DUI (also called "driving while intoxicated" or "DWI" and "operating while intoxicated" or "OWI") is normally a misdemeanor but can be a felony if the offender has a certain number of prior DUI convictions or the offense involves injuries or death.
Driving while suspended or revoked. Driving while suspended or revoked can be an infraction, a misdemeanor, or a felony offense. Jurisdictions typically classify driving while suspended or revoked offenses according to the following variables:
For example, in some states, driving while suspended or revoked is a misdemeanor if the offender's license is suspended as the result of a DUI conviction. However, it's a felony if the suspension is because of a conviction for vehicular homicide. In other states, a third conviction for driving while suspended or revoked is a felony.
Hit-and-run. State laws vary, but the classification of a hit-and-run offense generally depends on whether the accident resulted in injuries or death to another person or only damage to property. In most states, a hit-and-run accident that resulted in property damage is a misdemeanor, whereas a hit-and-run offense will typically be a felony if the accident involved injury or death to another person.
Reckless driving. Reckless driving is typically a misdemeanor. However, in some states, it's charged as a felony if:
Vehicular homicide. The classification of vehicular homicide and the factors considered varies significantly among jurisdictions. In many states, vehicular homicide is always a felony. In other states, vehicular homicide can be a misdemeanor or felony, depending on the circumstances. For example, a driver who causes the death of another person while committing a minor traffic infraction will typically be charged with a misdemeanor. However, more serious offenses, such as DUI and reckless driving will usually result in felony charges.