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Texas Traffic Violations
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Traffic Violations in Texas

In Texas, people who break state laws or city ordinances enacted to direct the safe operation of vehicles and roads can be cited or charged with a traffic violation (also known as a traffic offense).

The Texas statutes identify numerous traffic violations. Some popular ones include speeding, driving under the influence, running a red light/stop sign, defective vehicle equipment, unsafe lane changes, and seatbelt violations. These violations are viewed as acts against the State. As a result, the courts, police, the Department of Public Safety (DPS), and other involved agencies do not treat them as trivial matters.

Offenders may find that they have to endure fines, community service, probation, driver's license suspensions, driving safety courses, and even increased rates from auto insurance providers because of a traffic offense. Also, in cases where death, serious bodily injury, property damage, or other aggravating circumstances are present, the delinquent motorist may incur a jail or prison sentence. In addition, records of thesee offenses may be included in the offenders Texas traffic records.

It is worth noting that most Texas Traffic violations are considered crimes (Class C misdemeanors), albeit "fine only" crimes. The implication is that such offenses could come up during a criminal background check. Furthermore, the civil traffic offense category is usually reserved for vehicle parking and stopping violations, except disabled parking violations, which are Class C misdemeanors. Texas’ method of classifying traffic offenses is unlike some states where many violations are deemed civil infractions, i.e., offenses with non-jail penalties and zero effect on a person's criminal record.

Types of Traffic Violations in Texas

Traffic violations can be civil or criminal offenses (as explained above), but they can also be moving or non-moving and minor or major violations.

When the minor or major designation is used, the severity of the offense is being called into question. A minor traffic offense is one that is not considered serious or major by Texas law. This offense will likely result in a traffic ticket, which can be resolved by paying a small fine. Examples include:

  • Following too closely
  • Parking violations
  • Speeding
  • Failure to signal
  • Failure to yield right-of-way
  • Child restraint or seat belt violations, excluding a charge for child endangerment
  • Spilling load on highway

Meanwhile, a major traffic violation carries severe penalties, especially imprisonment. In many cases, the motorist will be arrested for the violation and will incur administrative sanctions (license suspensions, revocations, disqualifications, or cancellations) from the Department of Public Safety. Pricey car insurance rates are also a repercussion of such offenses. Examples of major traffic violations in Texas include failure to appear, driving while intoxicated, assault with a motor vehicle, driving with no license, and reckless driving.

(Note, however, that an offense classified as a minor traffic offense for a non-commercial driver may be a major traffic offense for someone with a commercial driver's license. According to Section 522.003 (25) of the Texas Transportation Code, following too closely, speeding 15 miles/hour or more over the posted limit, and improper or erratic lane changes are all major traffic violations for commercial drivers.)

On the other hand, when a traffic violation is deemed a moving or non-moving offense, it means that the motion of a motor vehicle is being considered in relation to the offense. Hence, a moving traffic violation will often involve vehicle activity, while a non-moving violation will relate to faulty vehicle equipment or the inappropriate parking, standing, or stopping of a vehicle. Nevertheless, a motorist can still be cited for a non-moving violation even when their vehicle is in motion. Such offenses include:

  • Safety belt violations;
  • Texting while driving; and
  • Speeding less than 10% below the posted limit.

Texas Traffic Violation Code

Most traffic violation laws in Texas are compiled in the Transportation Code, with the rest under the Penal Code. These laws list the traffic offenses that people who travel the state's roads and highways should not commit, and the penalties due on them if they do.

Texas Felony Traffic Violations

Texas felony traffic violations refer to offenses punishable under the state's Penal Code. Unlike other traffic offenses, these are considered extremely serious. Hence, an individual convicted of a traffic felony violation may lose much more than freedom for a long while. The party may also surrender certain fundamental rights and privileges, such as the right to possess firearms, vote, or hold a public office. Additionally, the conviction can result in thousands of dollars in fines, job/promotion losses, the denial of a professional license or permit, limited educational opportunities, and the loss of certain public benefits.

Usually, a traffic offense only becomes a felony when death, serious bodily injury/disfigurement, or substantial property damage occurs, or the defendant is a repeat offender. Examples of felony traffic offenses in Texas include:

  • Aggravated assault with a motor vehicle
  • Assembling/operating an amusement ride while intoxicated (3rd or subsequent offense)
  • Driving while intoxicated (w/child under 15)
  • Driving while intoxicated (3rd or subsequent offense)
  • Failure to appear (if the underlying traffic offense is a felony)
  • Criminal negligent homicide
  • Intoxication assault
  • Intoxication manslaughter
  • Vehicular manslaughter
  • Evading arrest or detention with a vehicle

Texas Traffic Misdemeanors

Traffic violations in Texas can be categorized as Class A, B, or C misdemeanors. However, most misdemeanor traffic violations fall under the Class C category, crimes with non-jail/prison penalties. Other classes come with imprisonment sentences:

  • Class B traffic misdemeanors carry a sentence of up to 6 months.
  • Class A traffic misdemeanors, the most serious misdemeanor classification, carry a sentence of up to a year.

Although a traffic misdemeanor can be charged as a Class A, B, or C, it is possible for the charge to be enhanced, even to a felony, if aggravating factors exist. For example, the offense of "driving while license invalid" is a Class C misdemeanor under Tex. Transp. Code § 521.457. However, the offense can become a Class B misdemeanor if:

  • The defendant has a prior conviction for the same offense, or
  • The defendant's license was previously suspended because of an offense involving the operation of a motor vehicle while intoxicated.

Also, the charge can be upgraded to a Class A misdemeanor if the offending driver caused or was at fault in a car accident that led to the death or serious bodily injury of another person.

Examples of traffic misdemeanors in Texas include:

  • Fleeing or attempting to elude an officer
  • Open container
  • Leaving the scene of an accident
  • Reckless driving
  • Driving while intoxicated (1st or 2nd offense)
  • Possession of alcoholic beverage in motor vehicle
  • Speeding
  • Assembling/operating an amusement ride while intoxicated (1st or 2nd offense)
  • Driving with a suspended license

Texas Traffic Infractions

In most US states, a traffic infraction is an offense with a non-jail/prison penalty that can be a parking or non-parking violation. However, as a general rule, traffic violations are not classified as infractions in Texas. Such offenses are either misdemeanors, felonies, parking violations, or compliance-only citations. What constitutes a civil infraction (a civil offense) in other states is merely a parking violation in Texas.

Texas Traffic Violation Codes and Fines

Anyone who violates a traffic law or ordinance in Texas is liable to pay money as a penalty for their offense. This amount is set by the Texas Transportation Code for state law violations and established by a municipality for city ordinance violations.

Typically, Texas law attaches a dollar limit to each violation rather than a fixed sum. This amount does not include court costs. For example, a Class C traffic misdemeanor has a fine penalty of up to $500, a Class B misdemeanor attracts a fine of up to $2,000, and a Class A misdemeanor has a fine penalty of up to $4,000. Furthermore, any felony traffic violation carries a fine of up to $10,000, most non-felony municipal court traffic violations have a $200 fine maximum, and most city ordinance violations do not exceed $500 in fines.

In reality, the total amount payable for a Texas traffic violation depends on the offense and facts of the case. As a result, the fine an individual pays in one county or city varies in the next for the same offense.

How to Pay a Traffic Violation Ticket in Texas

The first thing any person who has been cited for a traffic violation in Texas must do is verify the trial court with jurisdiction over their offense and check if the ticket is payable. This information will be on the ticket, and perhaps the amount in fines. If this amount is not written on the ticket, the individual can use the "case search" or "payment portal" system on the court's website to determine the total. However, one must usually wait a few business days for the court to process the ticket into the system. Another option is to call the court to confirm the fine amount. The Texas Judicial Branch's directory or directory search can be used to find the6 website, physical/mail address, and contact person ("the clerk") of the relevant court.

As the next step, the party should check the court's traffic tickets web page for payment options and methods. Usually, a cited motorist can pay their traffic ticket in person, by mail, via phone, or online using the court's payment portal. Payment methods include cash, credit card, Samsung/Apple Pay, money order, personal checks, and cashier checks. Some courts, like the Houston Municipal Court, also collect wire payments.

The court will often require the individual's license plate number, date of the violation, or citation number to identify the case and process payment. Upon receipt of payment, a plea of no contest will be entered for the individual.

Any individual who wants to pay their ticket fine must do so before the ticket's due date. Failing to pay the fine can make the court issue a warrant for the motorist's arrest. It can also lead to additional fines and costs, driver's license suspension, the denial of driver's license renewal or the privilege to obtain a license, and the denial of motor vehicle registration or renewal.

An offender who wants to pay but cannot afford the fine has the following alternatives:

  • Request a payment plan from the court.
  • Ask the court for a payment extension.
  • Perform community service in place of the fine
  • Request jail credit (i.e., credit for time served). Jail credit means that the court will subtract an amount from the fine owed for the days spent in jail or waive what is owed. This only applies to persons who were previously incarcerated. The incarceration must not be related to the violation, but the court has the discretion to grant or deny the request.

To obtain any of the first three options, an individual must appear in court on/before the date written on their ticket. A judge will review the party's ability to pay and order the appropriate remedy.

To obtain jail credit, one must request it from the court. Some courts require the requester to submit a form, which can be obtained online or from the clerk. This form will have a section where a guilty or no contest plea must be entered, as one must plead guilty or no contest to demand jail credit. When no form is available, a letter (including one's plea, personal details, incarceration date, case number, etc.) can be mailed or hand-delivered to the court. The form or letter will be submitted to a judge for review.

Note that Texas law requires every offender under 17 years of age to appear before a judge with a parent or legal guardian, whether they wish to pay the fine or request alternative payment options. Any payment sent before the juvenile's mandatory appearance will be rejected.

Traffic Violation Lookup in Texas

All traffic courts in Texas maintain case or public inquiry systems on their websites. Ticketed parties and other members of the public can use these systems to look up traffic violations or cases. Sometimes, this system will be hosted together with an online traffic ticket payment portal.

A court's case portal/system will usually have a search box or bar, into which one must enter a last name, citation number, case number, date of birth, or license plate number to obtain information.

How to Plead not Guilty to a Traffic Violation in Texas

Any individual cited for a traffic violation in Texas has the right to plead not guilty to the offense. To enter a not-guilty plea, the party must appear in court and request a hearing to discuss the case with a judge. However, this appearance does not have to be physical. Some courts allow defendants to schedule and hold hearings remotely. Defendants can also forfeit the hearing and move straight to a trial by a judge or jury. For traffic trials, obtaining legal representation is a personal choice.

Ultimately, it is best to check with the court (on its website or by calling the clerk) to learn the procedures for entering a not-guilty plea.

What Happens if You Plead No Contest to a Traffic Violation in Texas

Anyone who pays a traffic ticket in Texas pleads no contest (nolo contendere) to a traffic violation. A no-contest plea is identical to a guilty plea, except that the offender will not be liable for damages arising from any subsequent lawsuit. The result of a no-contest plea is that the state will treat the offense as a conviction, and the offender may receive administrative penalties from the Department of Public Safety. Moreover, as many traffic violations in Texas are technically crimes, the conviction may show up on an offender's criminal history, regardless of whether time was spent in jail/prison or not - and this can trigger job, employment, and other issues in a person's life.

To sidestep the above repercussions, individuals may seek a deferral instead of outrightly paying the fine. A deferral is another way offenders can plead no contest but keep a conviction off their record without a trial. It allows a defendant to dismiss a traffic violation by deferred adjudication (also called deferred disposition) or by taking a state-approved driving safety/defensive driving course. Generally, by opting for deferred disposition, an individual will be placed on probation for some time. If the party stays free from traffic tickets or violations, the offense will be dismissed.

However, one must be eligible for deferred adjudication or to attend a driving safety course. For instance, commercial driver's license holders are ineligible for deferred adjudication, and non-moving violations do not qualify for such relief. Meanwhile, people who took a driving safety course within the last 12 months or were charged with certain offenses (e.g., leaving the scene of a collision) are ineligible for the course. More information on the eligibility requirements and procedural guidelines can be obtained from the relevant court's website or clerk.

How Long Do Traffic Violations Stay on Your Record?

Traffic violations produce two types of records in Texas: criminal and driving records. Once a person pleads “guilty” or “no contest” to a violation or is found guilty by a judge or jury, the conviction may appear on the person's criminal and driving record. One instance where a traffic conviction will not be recorded is if the defendant completed deferred disposition or an approved driving safety course and the court dismissed the charges. However, in those cases, while the conviction will not be listed, the arrest record, offense, and deferred adjudication sentence may still appear.

Typically, traffic violations stay on a person's Texas driving record for life. On the other hand, if the violation shows up on a criminal record, it will remain there permanently unless the subject obtains an order of expunction or nondisclosure from the court.

Can Traffic Violations Be Expunged/Sealed in Texas?

Possibly. People may be able to expunge or seal traffic violations from their criminal records in Texas. An expungement is a general term for a legal procedure used to clear an arrest or conviction from a person's criminal record, whereas sealing limits the record's release to the public. In Texas, the expungement process is known as an "Expunction," and the sealing process is called "Nondisclosure".

Generally, if someone was acquitted, had their case dismissed, or completed deferred adjudication community supervision ("probation"), there is a good chance that the person qualifies for an expunction or nondisclosure order. In this area, it is best to consult with an experienced attorney to know the minimum waiting periods and legal processes.

What Happens if You Miss a Court Date for a Traffic Violation in Texas?

Failing to appear for a traffic violation is a punishable offense in Texas. As such, the court may:

  • Release a warrant for a person's arrest.
  • Assess more fines (not exceeding $500), fees, and costs against the defaulter.
  • Charge the defaulter with a Failure to Appear (FTA), an offense under Tex. Pen. Code § 38.10. According to this law, failing to appear is a Class A misdemeanor. If the underlying offense is punishable by a fine only, the FTA is a Class C misdemeanor. However, if the underlying traffic offense is a felony, the charge will be enhanced to a third-degree felony.

In addition, the Department of Public Safety can fine the individual and suspend, revoke, or ban the renewal of their driver's license.