Labor Day weekend is quickly approaching. In addition to writing a shopping list for your end of summer picnic or celebration, keep in mind that law enforcement agencies will be out in full force writing tickets over the three (or four) day weekend. Drive safely! If you do have the misfortune of getting pulled over, this article may be of some help.

Disclaimer: The following should not be considered legal advice.  It is always best to consult with an attorney when involved in a legal proceeding of any type.

writing a traffic citation vs ticket

You commit a traffic violation. You get pulled over. The officer cites you and uses the term traffic citation vs ticket, like you’re used to. Is there a difference?


Semantics or legalese, traffic citation vs ticket are terms used interchangeably. What really matters are four things:

  • The severity of what you did.
  • Potential penalties you face.
  • Options to reduce penalties.
  • Knowing the process.


Traffic laws vary between states. That, by itself, should be motivation enough to drive cautiously outside your home state. What might be a simple traffic infraction where you live could be a criminal offense elsewhere.

It’s human nature to make mistakes. Facing your mistake from the moment flashing lights in your rear view mirror grab your attention may make the difference between a good experience and a bad one. It doesn’t matter if you know you screwed up. Considering you might have made a mistake puts you in a better frame of mind to deal with the cop at the window. If you project an open mind, the police officer is more likely to have one as well – open enough to perhaps let you off with a warning.

Severity of an alleged offense, particularly misdemeanors and felonies, will affect your immediate reaction. Were you involved in a crash? Was it limited to property damage, or was someone injured? How severe is the damage and/or injury? Are you injured? Will you be taken into custody and be required to post bail, or simply be issued a ticket? Was it a non-moving violation like parking or faulty equipment, or is it a more serious matter – speeding, reckless driving, distracted driving or driving under the influence?


After you accept your situation and resign yourself to the legal process, take a close look at the possible penalties.

  • Fines leveled by a judge immediately come to mind, but it’s important to be cognizant of potential state civil penalties or DMV fees, Such costs may come upon conviction, and may continue for years later. Driver improvement classes may be required in order to have full driving privileges restored. Such classes cost money. So do attorneys.
  • Your freedom. More severe traffic offenses can carry jail or prison sentences. Just the possibility of “doing time” should prompt consideration of hiring an attorney. An attorney not only guides you through the process, but can influence it, hopefully in your favor.
  • Other “penalties.” Outside of financial costs and physical freedom, any number of other costs may come into play. A conviction may put marks on your license or flag it, negatively impact your insurance premiums, or even lead to a carrier canceling coverage. Some states considered a traffic citation, even an e-citation, an “arrest” which may be subject to freedom of information laws (FOIL) and can be made public through the media.  Insurance aside, if your actions (whether ticketed or not) cause property damage or injury, you may be open to a lawsuit.

What are your options?

The cliché goes, “Honesty is the best policy.” Few debate this wisdom, however, in more serious matters, a lawyer’s counsel is typically in order. In many cases, honest ownership of an error is likely to gain favor with both the cop at the window, a prosecutor, and ultimately the judge. Done properly, you might avoid court entirely. Owning an error will gain more favor than lying about it, or making excuses.

It’s okay to admit you may have been going a little too fast to the cop at your car window. Can the officer use that against you at trial?  Yes, but lying, or arguing, will earn you a ticket, or several. It’s NOT okay to confess you angrily stomped on the gas because at the time you were thinking cops have better things to do than pull people over. Honesty might get you a warning, while dishonesty and anger will probably earn you a ticket, and a maybe a lecture from both the police officer and the judge.

Treating everyone involved like you want to be treated isn’t legal advice; but just plain courtesy and common sense. Starting with the officer at the car window to the judge on the bench, everyone has a role in the process. There’s always stress, and often drama. Remember each individual is a person who has probably been pulled over, been in your position, and understands.

Any attempts by you to inject humor, anger, excuses, or opinions on crime and punishment are likely to fall flat. Cool, polite, and professional wins the day.

Process – How to handle a traffic citation vs ticket

Knowing how the traffic summons process works in a specific jurisdiction works to your advantage. If you know a police officer, or an attorney who practices there, it can’t hurt to ask them how things work. Even court personnel may be able to explain their particular process.

Typically, between the time of an officer issuing the traffic citation and an appearance in front of a judge, there is someone authorized to negotiate, or plea bargain your case.  For practicality, busy courts have prosecutors who recommend reductions in charges and/or penalties to avoid going to trial and tying up the court. Trials take time (and money). For charges above the level of a simple violation, most judges will insist you have an attorney represent you.

A prosecutor, while negotiating, may explain the realities of going to trial, potential outcomes and penalties. There are, however, limits on how much leeway they’ll give a defendant before saying, “take it to trial.”  Some courts and prosecutors may ask you to write to them, explaining your position in advance of an appearance to save time in the courtroom.

The prosecutor may be a town’s attorney, a district attorney, or in some jurisdictions, the actual officer who wrote you the ticket. Some municipalities skip the middle person and employ administrative law judges to whom you directly present your case.

If you’re a good driver with a clean record, it can work to your advantage to bring proof of your clean driving record to court and request a dismissal of the charge. At the very least, such proof can often help negotiate a reduction in the charge(s), fines, or both. This is where honesty applies. Claiming you have a clean driving record, when you actually don’t, can backfire. Judges, prosecutors, and police officers can access driving records, sometimes on the spot.

In relative minor circumstances, a cost-benefit analysis may be in order when considering hiring a lawyer. The cost of an attorney to mitigate penalties may actually cost more than the penalties themselves.

Answering a ticket right away keeps other penalties away. Putting tickets off for another day isn’t going to end well. Think of it as prevention. Late tickets may incur more penalties (like a warrant or license suspension) through both the DMV and court, and will probably bring on a judge’s ire. Same with paying fines and fees on time.

Summons, ticket, citation, notice, traffic citations vs ticket – the terminology isn’t important – but your actions are. Both what you’re accused of, and how you deal with it effects the outcome of your case.  The first happened because you either weren’t attentive, thinking, operating your vehicle properly, made a mistake, or were ignorant of the law.

Thoughtful, honest efforts in the aftermath better your chances of successfully navigating the process no matter whether it’s called a traffic citation or a ticket.


Questions? Interested in learning more about a traffic citation vs ticket?

Get in touch with the L-Tron team.

Call 800-830-9523 or Email