While most people don’t see a direct correlation between a traffic ticket and a criminal defense attorney, it’s a fact that traffic offenses in Texas carry criminal penalties. It’s just that the maximum penalty for most traffic violations is usually limited to a fine only. This includes, for example, speeding However, it is possible to be charged with a Class B or A misdemeanor or even a felony for more serious offenses. And when that’s the case, it is essential that the offender seek assistance from a reputable attorney.
What types of traffic offenses are more serious criminal charges?
The majority of moving violations, like speeding, running a red light or a stop sign, or and failing to yield right of way, are offenses that may not carry significant punishments on their own. That being said, multiple offenses in a short period of time can result in more severe repercussions, including license suspension, points, and permanent entries on a driving record that become known to liability insurance companies.
Beyond run of the mill ticket offenses most are familiar with, there are several offenses that merit an immediate arrest and serious criminal charges on their own. This can lead to felony charges and prison, depending on the facts and a person’s criminal history. The Texas Transportation Code and the Penal Code define some of the misdemeanor and felony offenses, including:
- Reckless driving – Reckless driving speaks to the driver’s intentions, as to be charged with reckless driving, it must be clear that the driver is operating their vehicle with _ little regard for the safety of those around them. A driver who makes several dangerous lane changes without signaling may be charged with reckless driving. Also, speeding well above the posted limit, cutting off other cars, following too closely, or making an unsafe pass on a two-lane road can result in a reckless driving arrest. Reckless driving is a special Class B misdemeanor with penalties which are less than the typical Class B misdemeanor.
- Driving with a suspended or revoked license – Drivers responsible for an accident that causes injury or drivers arrested during the commission of a felony will often have their license revoked or suspended as part of their punishment. Another way can be as a result of a DWI. Anyone caught driving with a suspended or revoked license can be arrested and charged with the misdemeanor offense of driving while license invalid or suspended.
- Racing – Racing is a Class B misdemeanor in Texas, which means it carries significant financial and license penalties. Repeat offenders will be charged with a more serious crime, and may face jail time in some instances. Racing has a specific definition in the Texas Transportation Code and it is up to the state to prove that the defendant was actually racing. If someone get injured bad enough, felony racing can result.
- Getting caught with an open container in the vehicle – Alcohol offenses generally result in criminal charges, and that’s also the case when an open container is found in the car. This container refers to any open vessel, whether it’s a cup, a bottle or something else.
- DUI or DWI – DWIs are among the most common criminal offenses, and the resulting punishment depends heavily on whether or not the accused is a repeat offender. The penalties scale up with every DWI charge, which means the fines become more expensive, license suspension periods are extended, and the risk of jail time goes up. Courts often require DWI offenders to install ignition locks in their vehicle or attend drug and alcohol classes.A DWI charge is merited when someone is caught driving while under the effects of alcohol or drugs. If an intoxicated driver causes injury, they can be charged with intoxication assault, and if they kill someone, they can be charged with DWI manslaughter. Both DWI assault and manslaughter are felonies, even if you have never been arrested for anything else before.
- Vehicular manslaughter – Accidents will happen, even horrible ones. But when someone causes an accident while driving recklessly, they can be charged with vehicular manslaughter, even if they did not mean to cause the crash. Vehicular manslaughter is a felony crime that usually comes with enormous financial and license penalties, as well as the possibility of several years of jail time.
- Hit and run – Hit and run is a colloquial term that actually refers to either a failure to stop and render aid, or a failure to stop and give information. If a driver crashes into someone else’s property and flees the scene without giving information, they will face either a Class C or Class B misdemeanor charge, depending on how much damage was caused. In general, any hit and run that involves at least $500 in property damage comes with a Class B misdemeanor charge, which may result in up to six months of county jail time.If a driver collides with someone causing serious injury or death and flees the scene, the charge is much more serious. If the injury is minor, the defendant may get off with a third degree felony charge and a short jail stay. If, however, injuries are serious or result in death, they can be sentenced to at least two years in jail, and face up to a total of 10 years of jail time. Courts will look at a defendant’s prior criminal history to determine whether heavier penalties are appropriate.
- Attempting to elude police – If a driver does not stop their vehicle when signaled to do so by police, they may be charged with evading arrest in a motor vehicle or fleeing. These kinds of cases used to always be misdemeanors, but as more and more people were killed or injured by drivers attempting to get away from the police, it can now be a felony when a motor vehicle is used to make the getaway.
It should be clear from this list that a Class B or above criminal charge is different from petty traffic Class C offenses in that these criminal offenses usually require an element of intention. Police and the courts realize that drivers are prone to bouts of inattention, but criminal charges normally only come into play when a driver is consciously making a dangerous decision or has otherwise demonstrated that they are a threat on the road.
But just because someone has been charged with a crime does not mean that they are guilty, nor does it mean they should receive the harshest penalties under the state law or even be convicted.
What to Do When a Traffic Offense Leads to Criminal Charges
As soon as an offense is charged as a more serious crime, the situation gets much more complicated. Criminal law is subject to hundreds of procedures that legal professionals study for years to learn. This means that the average person has little chance of providing their own representation adequately. Without proper representation, a defendant may even incriminate themselves and take apart their case before they even have a chance to lobby a defense. For this reason, most judges, especially in Harris County, will discourage individuals from representing themselves.
Criminal law covers an enormous range of offenses, so there are specialists that handle all kinds of cases. And one of those specialties is traffic law. Criminal defense attorneys experienced in traffic law can provide several advantages to their clients. For example:
- A criminal defense attorney can provide assistance before someone is even charged with a crime. From the beginning, an attorney can coach their client so that they don’t say anything incriminating, and ensure they are treated fairly while being detained, arrested and questioned.
- A criminal defense attorney can attack charges that should not stand. If police have filed charged based on insufficient evidence or improper procedure, an attorney may be able to get them dropped outright. For example, police require probable cause to make an arrest, but the definition of probable cause is occasionally stretched beyond the limit. When it is, a competent attorney should be able to spot it and build a case against it.
- A criminal defense attorney may be able to reduce bail for their client while they are still in jail. While being detained, the detained person can secure their release while waiting for trial if they provide enough cash money or obtain a bail bond as a financial guarantee that they will show up in court. An attorney can negotiate a reduced bail for their client, or may be even get it waived outright.
- A competent criminal defense attorney will help negotiate a plea bargain if the case calls for one. If a defendant knows that they are likely to be found guilty of a crime, or otherwise does not want to take a case to trial, a qualified defense attorney can make a significant impact because of the mere threat of a possible trial. The right to a trial by jury, even if a person is guilty, is often enough to cause a favorable outcome, and can greatly reduce penalties in exchange for meeting certain conditions. This is true not only for first offenders, but also for those with a long criminal record. A good criminal attorney is an expert negotiator and can maximize their client’s chances of securing a favorable plea bargain.
- And, of course, a criminal defense attorney is trained in managing the trial itself. If the case goes to trial, then it’s critical to have expert representation handling the case. A defense attorney will weigh the merits of the case, analyze the prosecutor’s evidence, and ensure that the defendant’s case is effectively presented, including pretrial motions, jury selection, opening statements, witness questioning, evidence exhibits, and final argument at the end of the case.
Criminal convictions can permanently alter the course of a person’s life. On top of the heavy fines and jail time, their record will be tarnished for years, usually permanently. This is obviously a scenario that should be avoided if possible, and a competent criminal defense attorney is key to securing that outcome.[/title]