traffic tickets & misdemeanor defense

what exactly is a ‘traffic ticket’?

It sounds simple enough, but there is some complexity behind a Texas Peace Officer’s decision to issue a traffic ticket to a motorist.

The traffic ticket is actually a summons, or to use a more technical term, a citation.

A citation, in this context, is a notice to appear at a particular place and time to answer allegations against the motorist by the State, before a municipal or justice court.

When a Texas Peace Officer detains a motorist, the Peace Officer will ordinarily issue a citation, ask for the motorist’s signature on the citation, and then hand a copy of the signed citation to the motorist. The motorist’s acceptance of the citation relieves the Peace Officer of the need to perform a custodial arrest.

When a motorist signs the citation, they are acknowledging its issuance, the charge or charges it contains, and promising to appear at a municipal or justice court on or before the time indicated on the citation.

Accordingly, while the motorist may have a defense to the underlying charge (whatever that charge might be; speeding, running a stop sign, etc…), if the motorist doesn’t appear at the municipal or justice court, then an additional offense is committed, a violation of a promise to appear.

If the motorist refuses to sign the citation then an additional summons will be sent via mail to the motorist’s address on file with the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles, or reflected on the motorist’s Texas driver’s license, or the motorist’s last known address.

Upon mailing, this summons is considered served, and if the motorist fails to appear on or before the date of the summons, then an additional offense is committed; a failure to appear.

To summarize, while the underlying citation might require the motorist answer any number of driving-related charges, if a motorist ignores or forgets to attend to the citation, the prosecutor for the State may elect to add an additional offense to these charges, either a violation of promise to appear, or failure to appear, unrelated to the motorists activity on the roadway.

Note that a violation of promise to appear carries a fine of $200.00, whereas a failure to appear carries a fine of $500.00.

Remember, a person that has been detained by a peace officer and then released upon the issuance of a citation, has been released from custody on the condition they subsequently appear in court; accordingly, upon failing to appear on or before the date and time on the citation, the court may issue a warrant for the motorist’s arrest.

arrest warrant

If a motorist fails to appear or violates their promise to appear, or sets their case for a trial and then fails to appear, an arrest warrant may issue.

Some courts refer to these as alias warrants, but the term alias is more correctly applied to a warrant issued when the correct name of a defendant is unknown, or when it is the second warrant to issue in a particular case.

An attorney can post a bond to lift an arrest warrant.

capias pro fine warrant

If the motorist appears at the municipal or justice court on or before the deadline, and enters into an agreement with the State (approved by the court) in order to avoid a conviction, and the motorist fails to honor their side of the agreement, then a judgment for fines and costs will be entered, and a capias pro fine warrant will issue.

A capias pro fine warrant can only be issued by the court after judgment and sentence for unpaid fines and costs.

It is directed to any Texas Peace Officer and commands the officer to arrest a person convicted of the offense and bring him or her immediately before the court.

No bond can be posted to lift a capias pro fine warrant.

responding to the citation; guilty, no contest, not guilty

A motorist charged with a driving-related offense has some options when it comes to responding to the State’s allegations.

The first is simply to enter a plea of guilty and pay the fines and costs imposed by the court.

This can be done at any time up until the appearance date on the citation. Exercising this option, while simple and fast, results in a judgment against the motorist for commission of the offense. This is recorded as a conviction on the motorist’s driving record, and depending on the nature of the offense, may result in points on the motorist’s record, and the requirement of surcharge payments to the State, not to mention the potential for an increase in auto insurance premiums.

Another option, available in some circumstances but not all, is for the motorist to elect to take a driving safety course or DSC (colloquially, ‘defensive driving’).

This request must be made on or before the answer date on the citation.

In addition to payment of costs imposed by the court, within 90 days of the court’s granting the request, the motorist will have to pay to take a State-approved course, complete the course, submit proof of completion, submit an up-to-date copy of their driving record, attest by sworn affidavit that they have not taken such a course in the preceding twelve months calculated from the date of the offense, and provide proof of financial responsibility (insurance). At the time of request to take a DSC, a plea of guilty or no contest must be entered. Additionally, this option is only available if the accused motorist has a Texas driver’s license or permit.

Upon satisfactory completion, any judgment is removed and the case is dismissed; the dismissal must be noted in the court’s docket. The court reports the completion date of the course after the court dismisses the case.

An additional option, available in some circumstances but not all, is for the motorist to request suspension of sentence and deferral of final disposition.

This option is available, subject to the court’s discretion, for all fine-only offenses with two notable exceptions: (a) traffic offenses committed in a construction work maintenance zone when workers are present; and, (b) a violation of a State law or local ordinance relating to motor vehicle control, other than a parking violation, committed by a person who holds a commercial driver’s license, or held a commercial driver’s license when the offense was committed.

Accordingly, short of responding to charges for these offenses by entering a plea of not guilty and setting them for a trial, whereby the State will be put to its proof, there is little that can be done but enter a plea of guilt or no contest and pay the fine.

To elect suspension of sentence and deferral of final disposition the motorist must enter a plea of guilt or no contest, or the court must enter a finding of guilt. The court will impose a special expense fee, not to exceed the amount of the fine that could be imposed, as well as court costs.

The maximum period of deferral is 180 days. During the period of deferral, the court may impose reasonable conditions, such as completing a DSC (this is mandatory if the motorist is under the age of 25 and the allegation is a ‘moving violation’).

The most common condition imposed is a commitment by the motorist to avoid being charged or convicted with any civil, criminal, or regulatory offense committed within the territorial jurisdiction of the court, and not be subsequently convicted of any criminal offense, similar in nature to the underlying offense, against the laws of the State or the United States.

Note, suspension of sentence and deferral of final disposition is not deferred adjudication.

Deferred adjudication, formerly called probation,  is a form of community supervision, entailing supervision of the terms of a probation agreement by probation officers.

Generally, no such supervision exists in the context of suspension of sentence and deferral of final disposition. Records relating to a charge dismissed upon successful completion of suspension of sentence and deferral of final disposition may be expunged.

Individuals in county and district courts receiving deferred adjudication, regardless if its a Class C misdemeanor or a felony, are not entitled to expunction.

There is no such thing as ‘deferred adjudification.’ It doesn’t exist.

A motorist may also seek to have the State’s allegations against them dismissed through proof of timely compliance with the relevant regulation. This is known as a compliance dismissal. This is only available in certain limited circumstances.

If the motorist enters a plea of ‘not guilty‘ then the court will set the case for trial, and both the motorist and the State will have an opportunity to present their evidence to the court (in a bench trial), or to a jury.

justice courts

Courts presided over by justices of the peace have original jurisdiction in misdemeanor criminal cases under state law where the punishment upon conviction may be fine only or by fine and, as authorized by law, sanctions not consisting of confinement or imprisonment. This jurisdiction is concurrent with municipal courts. Concurrent simply means to run together.

Justice courts also have concurrent jurisdiction over municipal ordinance violations involving the regulation of signs in a city’s extraterritorial jurisdiction.

Trials in justice courts are not of record.

Appeals from these courts are trial de novo in the county court, the county court at law, or the district court. Trial de novo literally means ‘new trial.’ It is a term used to describe a trial court which hears a matter for the first time.

municipal courts

Chapter 29 of the Texas Government Code creates over 900 municipal courts in Texas. Large metropolitan cities usually have more than one municipal court.

As statutory courts, municipal courts are able to adjudicate any subject matter determined by the Legislature. ‘Subject matter’ refers to the types of cases over which a court has jurisdiction. This type of jurisdiction is commonly called ‘subject matter jurisdiction.’

Municipal court subject matter jurisdiction is almost exclusively criminal, with limited exceptions. The Legislature has given municipal courts limited civil jurisdiction for bond forfeitures, cruelly-treated animal hearings under Chapter 821 of the Health and Safety Code, and dangerous dog hearings under Chapter 822 of the Health and Safety Code.

Certain municipalities may also declare the violation of city ordinances relating to the parking and stopping of vehicles to be civil offenses and prescribe civil penalties.

A court of record is a municipal court that is required to keep a record of its proceedings. A certain number of municipal courts have been created by the State legislature.

For all other cities, the governing body can choose to have a municipal court of record or a municipal court of non-record. A court of non-record does not keep a record of its proceedings. The majority of municipal courts are not courts of record, and appeals from non-record courts go to the county court, the county court at law, or the district court for trials de novo.

Under the authority of Chapter 30 and the Municipal Courts of Record Act passed in 1997, a municipal court may become a court of record through passage of a local ordinance.

In a court of record, a formal record and transcript are made of the proceedings in the trial and appeals are made on the record. Such appeals are generally heard in the county court or county court at law.

The Legislature has specifically authorized two cities, El Paso and Dallas, to create municipal courts of appeals to hear appeals from those cities’ municipal courts. The statutes creating these municipal courts of record require that the judges be licensed to practice law in Texas. No such provision is required of other municipal judges.

Municipal courts of record have additional jurisdiction in their territorial limits and their extraterritorial limits. This jurisdiction is concurrent with a district court or county court at law for the purpose of enforcing health and safety or nuisance abatement ordinances.