Texas generally observes three levels of criminal offenses, with felonies representing the most serious offenses and fine only representing the least serious. Traffic tickets and city ordinance violations fall into this category. In the middle are the misdemeanors considered serious enough for a stay in county for up to a year with a maximum $4,000.00 fine, but not so serious that they warrant a trip to state prison. That doesn’t mean they are easy to deal with or easy to move on from. Certain single misdemeanors can carry heavy fines up to $4,000.00, and jail up to a year, as well as a driver license suspension and surcharges. DWI is a good example of a mid-level misdemeanor that can cause job or even career loss. Usually, these jail misdemeanors will cause a second arrest for the same offense to be upgraded (enhanced) with higher fines and longer sentences. Certain misdemeanors will prevent the issuance of a concealed handgun license.
In some states, many traffic offenses are considered civil infractions, which means they are punishable with only a fine and are not criminal in nature. Legal rights are truncated in the case of a civil infraction, as the defendant is not given the right to a trial by jury. Civil infractions are the lowest level of offense and are not placed on a defendant’s criminal record. In Texas, traffic tickets are not civil infractions as a general rule. In this day and time, many computerized databases are accessible. Even convictions for traffic tickets can have major implications when filling out an application for employment or for admittance into a university.
Are traffic violations misdemeanors in Texas?
There is some confusion in Texas as to the difference between traffic tickets and so-called misdemeanors. This line is an important one, as it does determine what court the case is assigned to, what procedures apply, whether a person can be sentenced to jail, and what legal rights are afforded to the defendant.
Texas considers most traffic tickets to be Class C misdemeanors and not civil infractions. Speeding is the most common Class C misdemeanor. Class C is a simple a category created by the Texas legislature for fine only misdemeanors that are prosecuted in either a municipal (city) court because it was issued by a city policeman, or in the justice of the peace court because the officer who issued the ticket was a deputy sheriff, state trooper of a constable. The mid-level misdemeanors most people are familiar with are either Class B or Class A. Class B misdemeanors generally are punishable up to 6 months in jail with a maximum fine potential of up to $2,000.00. A Class A misdemeanor is the most serious misdemeanor. The maximum fine doubles to $4,000.00, and likewise, the maximum sentence in the county jail is $4,000.00.
Because a speeding ticket is technically considered a criminal offense in Texas, anyone who has been convicted for speeding has to declare that they have a criminal record on employment or collegiate applications, unless the application makes exceptions for Class C charges. Of course, the vast majority of businesses and universities don’t care about minor traffic offenses, but it can still put an applicant in a tricky spot, especially if the record is found later, after the applicant has claimed that they have no criminal record. Probably more important is the negative effect that a conviction for a moving violation will have on premiums for automobile insurance. Unquestionably, commercial truck drivers are affected the most by moving violations, even if the ticket was issued when driving in a personal car or pickup truck.
It is important to understand the difference between the issuance of a ticket or an arrest for a crime, and a conviction for charge. A conviction is notice to the world that the defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt of the allegation. For tickets, convictions are reported and placed on the driving record. This is why it is so important for defendants to avoid a conviction if at all possible. In most cases, if the defendant hires a qualified traffic ticket attorney to fight a ticket, the offense will not end up on the defendant’s record, even if the defendant is factually guilty of the charge and would be so found if the case went to trial. This is more difficult to accomplish if the defendant is a commercial driver or a known habitual offender.
Are traffic offenses ever considered a felony in Texas?
Felonies warrant the most severe penalties the state can dole out, including imprisonment in the penitentiary for more than a year, thousands of dollars in fines, extended license suspensions and severe social and employment issues for the rest of the defendant’s life. A felony conviction can be extremely damaging to a person’s ability to seek gainful employment and pursue educational opportunities, meaning that even after time is served and fines are paid, a conviction will still weigh heavily on a person’s ability to improve their future. Once a felony conviction is final, it never goes away. It cannot be expunged or removed from a person’s background.
Because felonies are so impactful, they are reserved them for the most serious of cases as determined by the legislature. This means that most traffic offenses do not rise to the level of felony, or even a misdemeanor warranting some jail time. But most is not all, and some offenses are considered a felony in Texas. Some felony driving offenses include:
- Multiple DWI convictions – The most common felony traffic offense is related to alcohol use. The first time someone is arrested for DWI, it is a Class B misdemeanor at the minimum, although it can be a Class A if the alcohol concentration in the blood is above a certain limit. A third arrest for a DWI is charged as a felony in Texas if there are two or more prior convictions for driving while intoxicated
- Intoxication assault or manslaughter – If someone seriously injures another or kills someone with their vehicle while driving in an intoxicated state, it is charged as a felony, even if the defendant is a first time offender. Intoxication assault is a third degree felony, while intoxication manslaughter is a second degree felony.
- DWI with child passenger – In this case, a child passenger refers to a child under 15 years of age. This offense is considered a felony even if the driver has never been arrested before.
- Some hit and run offenses – Texas drivers are required by law to stop their vehicle if they are involved in an accident, including hitting a fixed object such as a sign or mailbox. Failing to stop and give information is a misdemeanor offense if no injury is involved. If someone leaves the scene of an accident where someone is seriously hurt or killed, it will likely be charged as a felony.
- Some traffic offenses that involve injury – Some traffic offenses that result in injury to another person can be upgraded in severity. For example, if someone injures another person while racing, it may be charged as a felony.
What should be clear is that injury and death, even unintentional, almost always increases the penalties the defendant will face. And juries are less likely to give a defendant a break when there is a dead body involved. They tend to assign blame to a defendant, even if the same accident was a straight up DWI and the verdict would otherwise be Not Guilty.
Given the exhaustive list of traffic offenses established in Texas law, it is always to a defendant’s advantage to pursue legal representation when facing criminal charges. State law is difficult to understand and filled with technicalities that are impossible to keep up with for an untrained person. And because the resulting penalties can leave a lifelong impact, attorney assistance should be considered a must.