The Difference Between a Citation and a Ticket

Traffic citations and traffic tickets are documents that state an individual has been notified of a motor vehicle violation by a law enforcement officer. The two terms can be used interchangeably.

It's worth knowing the different types of citations and their potential consequences.

Failure to respond correctly could result in fines, criminal charges and unnecessary increases to insurance premiums, among other things.

Types of citations

There are three main classifications of traffic citation:

  1. Penalty vs. warning
  2. Moving vs. nonmoving
  3. Criminal vs. noncriminal

Penalty vs. warning

In some jurisdictions, officers may be mandated to penalize the offender for certain violations. But, in some places and circumstances, the officer can choose to issue a warning.

Moving vs. nonmoving

Nonmoving violations can include parking infractions as well as nonfunctioning safety equipment. Moving violations are for things like speeding or running a red light.

Criminal vs. noncriminal

Many traffic infractions are noncriminal. Violations that cause damage to people or property, or pose a serious threat, can be considered criminal violations. Examples of these include driving:

  • Recklessly
  • Under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • Without insurance
  • Without a valid driver's license
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How to respond to a citation

The best way to respond and to avoid further penalties will vary depending on the type and severity of the ticket.

Although specific traffic laws differ by state — and in some cases, by county — there are three primary types of tickets.

  • Written warnings
  • Fines or penalties
  • Criminal violations
police officer

Written warnings

A written warning from a police officer requires no further action, but we recommend addressing the cause of the warning promptly.

Warnings will not appear on your record but may be noted by the law enforcement agency that issued the warning. These records could affect how future violations within the agency's jurisdiction are handled by law enforcement agents.

For example, if you're given a warning for nonfunctioning brake lights, you're more likely to receive a ticket if you’re pulled over in the same jurisdiction for the same reason. Correctable violations such as this should be fixed as soon as possible after receiving a written warning in order to reduce the likelihood of future tickets and harsher penalties.

In some cases or jurisdictions, you may instead be issued a citation, but with the condition that if you fix the problem and return to a police station within a certain period — say, 48 hours — the citation will be thrown out and will never appear on your record.


Fines or penalties

If your citation includes a fine or penalty, you will be given a time frame in which you are required to respond. If you fail to do so, you risk a higher fine and other consequences.

Here are some of the most common courses of action when issued a citation like this:

You plead guilty

  • You pay the fine, usually online, by mail, by phone or in person, depending on what's accepted in the jurisdiction.
  • The violation appears on your driving record.
  • Any other penalties — like points on your license — are applied.

You plead not guilty

  • You choose to contest the charge in court.
  • You can ask to have your court date delayed, if necessary.
  • Once you appear in court, a judge will determine whether you are guilty or not.

You pursue a deferral

  • You pay a fee.
  • After a period of time, if you have not received any further citations, your ticket will be dismissed and will not appear on your driving record.
  • If you receive a citation within your deferral period, you will be held responsible for the penalty on the original violation, and both the new and original violations will appear on your driving record.
  • Deferrals are not available everywhere.

police sirens

Criminal violations

Criminal violations require you to attend an arraignment in court. During your arraignment, you will hear the charges against you and choose to:

  • Plead guilty
  • Plead not guilty
  • Explore other legal options

Examples of violations that are criminal in nature include driving:

  • Recklessly
  • Under the influence of drugs or alcohol
  • Without insurance or without a valid driver's license

Effects of a citation on your motor vehicle record

When you plead or are found guilty of a traffic violation, the information is recorded on your motor vehicle record (MVR).

The next time an insurer views your MVR, which will happen when you renew or shop for insurance, the company will know that you committed a traffic violation and will likely increase your insurance premiums or quote a higher rate.

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There are, however, several ways to keep a ticket off your driving record, depending on the laws in the jurisdiction that issued your ticket. These steps could include:

  • Enrolling in a defensive-driving course
  • Mitigation (pleading guilty but asking for leniency)
  • Contacting the county clerk
  • Contesting your charge in court

Your MVR is maintained by the state in which you are licensed. Information related to licensing, traffic violations and traffic accidents are all included in this record.

All but nine states use a driver violation points system that is part of your MVR and can affect your license standing. In these systems drivers receive points for violating traffic laws. Each violation has a different number of points.

The usual penalty for accumulating too many points is license suspension or revocation. Violations that you are charged with out of state are, with few exceptions, reported back to the state where you are licensed. This means that these violations are added to your motor vehicle record and often count as points on your license.

Does a ticket stay with you forever?

Generally, traffic violations do not affect you forever.

Insurers typically only look back 3 to 5 years, so minor infractions only have a temporary negative effect on your insurance costs. But, if your violation is serious enough or you fail to pay a ticket, it can be added to your criminal record. Incidents like these can have more lasting detrimental effects on your insurance rates.

Criminal records appear on background checks, so they can also negatively affect things like employment, adoption eligibility and more.

Whether a violation appears on your criminal or motor vehicle record, most states will allow you to apply to expunge an item from your record.

The process and eligibility for expungement varies from state to state, but if you succeed in doing so, the violation will no longer show up on your criminal record.

In certain cases and places, a conviction that is expunged from your criminal record may stay on your driving record. If your insurance company is aware of your conviction prior to its expungement, either because it was not removed from your MVR or because they knew about the conviction before its removal, they may charge you an increased rate.

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