Many people think that receiving a non-incarcerable traffic ticket means they do not need a lawyer's assistance. They may just pay the ticket and be done with it. But even a simple ticket for speeding can have far-reaching consequences if not taken seriously and handled appropriately.
Payable and "Must Appear" Traffic Offenses
In Maryland, there are two kinds of traffic citations that a police officer can give drivers:
- "Payable" offenses
- "Must appear" offenses
Payable tickets are reserved for less serious traffic violations, like speeding or running a stop sign. The driver is required to pay a fine to the district court, but does not have to appear before a judge unless you want to contest the ticket. By paying the fine, the driver is essentially pleading guilty to committing the traffic offense. As a result, the offense will appear on the person's driving record and the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration (MVA) may place points against the driver's record for the violation.
"Must appear" offenses include driving under the influence, leaving the scene of an accident and driving with a suspended license. When a driver is charged with one of these offenses, they may be arrested by the police officer and may have to spend time in jail or post a bail bond to be released. The ticket is considered "must appear" as the driver will have to appear before a judge in court and may plead not guilty or guilty with an explanation.
Failing to Appear in Court
It is not uncommon for a person who has been charged with a must appear offense to forget about his or her court date and fail to show up - especially if the person did not hire an attorney to defend against the charges. When an individual fails to appear for court, the judge may and nearly always shall issue a bench warrant for his or her arrest.
Drivers who have been charged with payable offenses also may be subject to penalties for failing to appear in court. If a driver who has been cited with a payable traffic offense does not pay the ticket within 15 days of receiving the citation, the court automatically sets a court date. The court notifies the MVA when a person misses their court date for a traffic violation.
Those who fail to appear in court will be subject to suspension of their license if action is not taken by the person or his attorney immediately. The MVA will then send a notice to the driver that his or her license will be suspended if the driver does not pay the fine and meet other conditions by a specific date. If the driver does not fulfill the conditions, the MVA will suspend the driver's license.
In Maryland, those caught driving with a suspended license are charged with an incarcerable traffic offense and may have to spend time in jail and/or pay fines for the offense. This is how a simple unpaid minor traffic ticket can get a driver into a world of legal trouble.
Hiring an Attorney to Defend Against Traffic Violations
Hiring an attorney is one of the best ways you can protect yourself from the consequences of failing to appear in court. An attorney will monitor the court's action as to the scheduling of trial dates and notify you immediately, thereby providing protection if you should fail to receive the court date or lose track of the exact date, time and location. If you are unavailable for the scheduled court date, an attorney can file a postponement request on your behalf. Also, should an emergency arise on or the day before a court date, an attorney may be able to appear in front of the Judge and explain your absence, which depending on the circumstances may prevent the warrant from being issued. Filing a postponement or appearing without an attorney with the belief that you can obtain a postponement on your own can be risky, as the Court is not required to grant your request. An experienced attorney may be able to better navigate the court system for you, relieving you of that burden, as well as, probably obtaining a more favorable result than if you had attempted to do so, on your own.
If you have a bench warrant for failure to appear, you must understand that these charges are not going to go away. Even if you move out-of-state, there is the potential that the police in your new state will use the Maryland charges to arrest you, suspend your driver's license or to levy additional fines against you.
If a judge has issued a bench warrant for your arrest, the attorney can file a Motion to Strike/Recall Bench Warrant on your behalf, depending on the reasons you did not appear in court. Judges are less likely to recall bench warrants or set new trial dates for those who do not have legal representation.
Even if you have only been charged with a payable traffic offense, it is still important to speak with an attorney about defending the charge. Many traffic offenses result in the MVA assessing points against your driver's license. If you have too many points on your license, the MVA can suspend your driving privileges. Traffic offense convictions may also lead to higher car insurance premiums. A lawyer may be able to defend your case and prevent you from acquiring points against your driver's license or at least get the court to reduce the severity of the offense and hence the number of points.
In such a tough economy, many people may see an attorney as another expense they cannot afford. But choosing not to hire an attorney may end up only costing you much more money and hardship down the road, whether it is from increased insurance premiums or being arrested on a bench warrant or being notified by the State that you will be suspended in 15 days for points accumulation.