Traffic Violations in the District of Columbia
In the District of Columbia (DC), traffic violations constitute a range of unlawful acts committed by motorists and other road users. Running a red light, DUI, failure to yield, speeding, and driving without insurance are all examples of traffic violations that frequently occur in DC.
Minor traffic violations (also called infractions) refer to all road-related offenses whose penalties do not include a jail sentence. Anyone ticketed for an infraction in DC usually ends up with a fine that must be paid to the DMV or contested. The DMV may also assess demerit points against the offender. Once these points accumulate to a specified limit, an offender can lose their driver's license for some time.
Meanwhile, major traffic violations are criminal offenses that carry a potential incarceration sentence. While similar to minor traffic violations, the penalties for criminal traffic violations are usually enhanced. Besides higher fines and lengthier sentences, an offender will likely lose their driving privileges, receive demerit points, have their vehicle impounded, be required to install an ignition interlock device (especially when the offense is drug or alcohol-related), and be subjected to a diversion program. Furthermore, as such violations are categorized as criminal, they may appear on an offender's DC traffic record.
Although most penalties sustained by traffic offenders in DC are due to legislation, there are other long-term ramifications. Specifically, the accumulation of too many license points results in higher insurance premiums and difficulties in purchasing insurance. Getting convicted of a traffic offense may also affect one's scholarships, jobs, professional licenses, and personal relationships.
Types of Traffic Violations in the District of Columbia
Asides from the minor and major classifications used for traffic violations in the District of Columbia, the district also differentiates violations by the state of a vehicle at the time of an offense: moving or not moving.
As the name suggests, a moving traffic violation occurs when someone breaks a traffic law while their vehicle is in motion—for example, an improper turn at an intersection. In contrast, a non-moving traffic violation occurs with an immobile or parked vehicle. Examples include parking abreast (double-parked), parking in front of a barricade, and parking within 10 feet of a fire hydrant.
However, people can also be cited for non-moving violations that do not involve parking. For example, excessive idling, failure to secure DC tags, motor running unattended, making non-emergency repairs on roadway, and dropping or throwing injurious material on street, highway, alley, or sidewalk.
The implication of classifying traffic offenses as moving or non-moving in DC is that an offender is liable to sustain stiffer penalties for a moving violation than a non-moving one. This is because such offenses have a greater potential for injury, property damage, and death.
District of Columbia Traffic Violation Code
The traffic violation code of the District of Columbia is a series of laws enacted to decrease and deter unsafe behaviors in pedestrians, cyclists, motorists, commercial drivers, and other persons who ply the district's roadways. The laws, codified in Title 50 of the DC Code, outline civil and criminal offenses that constitute a disobedience of traffic laws, as well as the penalties for people who willfully or unintentionally disregard those laws.
District of Columbia Felony Traffic Violations
Several traffic violations in the District of Columbia are prosecuted as criminal offenses by the Office of the Attorney General in the Superior Court. However, DC does not use the felony classification with criminal traffic offenses but refers to them as is (i.e., major or criminal traffic violations).
In DC, criminal traffic violations often lead to a person's arrest, and their penalties include hefty fines, license restriction, probation (which may include community service), and incarceration. These offenses also cause increments in insurance premiums and may appear on criminal records, which can prompt difficulties in a person's life.
DC criminal traffic violations include:
- Driving under the influence
- Operating while impaired
- Operating after suspension or revocation
- Driving without a valid license or permit
- Speeding over 30 mph
- Reckless driving
- Leaving after colliding (hit and run)
- Fleeing from law enforcement
District of Columbia Traffic Misdemeanors
In many instances, as evidenced in the legislation of other US states, misdemeanors are defined as criminal offenses that result in jail sentences below a year. When compared to felony offenses, they are often illustrated as the lesser crimes, resulting in significant fines and sentences but not as weighty as those imposed for felonies.
While the description of a misdemeanor holds in the District of Columbia, it constitutes only non-traffic criminal offenses. DC does not categorize criminal traffic violations as misdemeanors or felonies but instead assesses them based on their severity, repetition, and an offender's history. In this way, a person who commits a criminal or major violation for the first time will receive a lighter punishment than someone with two or more offenses, or whose offense had an aggravating element (e.g., injury, death, property damage). Examples of criminal traffic violations are outlined in the previous section.
District of Columbia Traffic Infractions
Traffic infractions in the District of Columbia refer to minor, fine-only offenses perpetrated by road users. Section 50–2301.02 (4) of the DC Code describes an infraction more concisely. Accordingly, an infraction means any conduct subject to administrative adjudication under Chapter 23 of the DC Code and which does not commence a proceeding in the Superior Court.
Because infractions do not carry a jail penalty, they do not appear on a person's criminal record. However, the Department of Motor Vehicles (the agency responsible for resolving such cases) lists the offenses on DC driver records.
DC traffic infractions typically comprise moving, parking, pedestrian, bicycle, and equipment violations. Examples include:
- Open container
- Driving through barricade
- Passing a stopped school bus with lights flashing
- Operating unregistered bike
- Equipment violations like bad foot/hand brakes, no fenders, unauthorized lights, defective speedometer, and no rearview mirrors
- Distracted driving
- Spilling load
- Child restraint violations
- Colliding with fixed object (w/o damage or injury)
- Failure to yield right-of-way
- Following too closely
- Excessive idling
- Walking suddenly into path of a vehicle
- Parking in emergency, no parking space
- Parading without permit
- Failure to provide proof of insurance
- Changing lane without caution
- Driving over lawn in federal park
District of Columbia Traffic Violation Codes and Fines
Anyone who commits a traffic violation in the District of Columbia is liable to pay fines for the act as part of the ensuing penalties. Nevertheless, when a violation is classified as an infraction (i.e., a minor or civil offense), the fine amount is considerably less than what it will be for a major (criminal) traffic violation.
In DC, the fines for infractions typically range from $15 to $500. These amounts are outlined in Title 18 of the Municipal Regulations and Title 50 of the DC Code. They are also referenced in the Metropolitan Police Department's circular.
It is worth noting that an infraction can cost up to $1,000 or more for repeat offenders. For instance, the offense of abandoning a vehicle on public space or private property, which is classified as a parking violation, is fined as follows:
- $250 for the first offense
- $500 for the second offense
- $1,000 for the third offense
On the other hand, the fines for criminal traffic violations, established in Title 50 and Section § 22–3571.01 of the DC Code, often amount to thousands of dollars. For example, an individual convicted of a DUI in the District of Columbia can end up paying a fine ranging from $2,500 to $10,000 or more to resolve their case.
How to Pay a Traffic Violation Ticket in the District of Columbia
The payable traffic tickets in the District of Columbia are typically infractions. The Department of Motor Vehicles handles such violations in DC. Hence, tickets are paid to the agency. People can pay their DC traffic infraction tickets as follows:
- Via phone: By calling (866) 893-5023.
- By mail: Offenders can mail a check or money order, made out to the DC Treasurer, and the ticket number (written on the memo line of the check or money order) to the following address:
P.O. Box 2014
Washington, DC 20013
An offender who does not have the ticket number can write their cited vehicle's state and license tag number on the check or money order.
Any mail payment must be sent to the DMV within 30 days of receiving a ticket, or the offender risks a fine penalty. It is advisable to send payment at least two weeks before the ticket's deadline so that the DMV can receive it within the stated time limit.
- Through the DMV's mobile app: The app's QR code can be found on the DMV's Pay Ticket page.
- In-person: An offender can visit the Adjudication Services Center during regular business hours. The individual can pay the ticket with cash, credit card, or money order at the center. If payment is not made with cash, the party must provide a valid driver's license, military ID, passport, or DMV-issued ID.
- Online: Out of the five options provided to people who want to pay for traffic violation tickets in DC, paying online is most recommended. To pay a DC traffic ticket online, an individual requires the ticket number and a credit card (Mastercard, Discover, Visa, or American Express). The DMV provides the following links for online ticket payments:
- Minor traffic violations
- Parking and photo enforcement
Traffic Violation Lookup in the District of Columbia
Two agencies handle traffic cases in the District of Columbia:
- The Misdemeanor and Traffic Community Court for criminal traffic violations, and
- The Department of Motor Vehicles for minor (civil) traffic violations.
Hence, when attempting to look up a minor traffic violation or ticket in DC, an individual can search the DMV's online payment portal. The appropriate portal can be accessed on the Pay Ticket's page (located under "Ticket Services" on the DMV's website menu) or by clicking the links under "Online" in the previous section. After navigating to the applicable payment portal, inquirers can enter a ticket/citation number or state and plate number (for parking or photo enforcement tickets) into the relevant search field. The system will return information on existing traffic violations or tickets upon one's query.
In contrast, an individual interested in looking up a criminal traffic violation under the court's jurisdiction can search eAccess. The DC Superior Court provides the eAccess system as a means for the public to obtain docket information and document images of criminal traffic cases, among its other uses. Tips on searching the system can be obtained under the eAccess help section or from its user guide.
Finally, if an individual wants to look up all traffic violations committed in DC, it is best to order their driving record from the Department of Motor Vehicles.
How to Plead not Guilty to a Traffic Violation in the District of Columbia
Pleading not guilty to a traffic violation in the District of Columbia means contesting the violation or ticket. People who opt to contest often do so to prove their innocence or negotiate a lesser charge with the government.
In DC, the process for pleading not guilty to a traffic offense depends on the type of offense, whether it is classified as minor or major under the law.
Pleading Not Guilty to Minor Traffic Violations
Minor traffic violations are under the purview of the Department of Motor Vehicles. Hence, individuals interested in disputing such offenses can find detailed instructions on the DMV's website.
Generally, the process for contesting a minor traffic offense in DC entails requesting a hearing within 60 calendar days of the ticket's issuance. However, if someone does not request within 30 calendar days, the DMV will penalize them with a fine of equal amount to the ticket fine. People can request hearings online, by mail, or in person. The relevant addresses, links, and forms (including non-English forms) can be obtained from the DMV's Contest a Minor Moving Violation Ticket and Contest Parking and Photo Enforcement Tickets pages.
Pleading Not Guilty to Major Traffic Violations
The DC Misdemeanor and Traffic Community Court (DCMTCC), created by the Superior Court in 2002 and operated by the Criminal Division, handles all traffic violations that are not minor or fine-only offenses (i.e., criminal traffic violations). As such, people interested in pleading not guilty do so at their arraignment.
Usually, once a plea of not guilty is entered in the traffic court, the case will be set for a status hearing instead of a trial, provided the Office of the Attorney General determines the defendant eligible to divert the case from further prosecution. At the hearing, the defendant may choose a diversion program if eligible, plead guilty, or request a trial.
However, if a criminal traffic case is too serious for diversion, the case will continue to trial. A case will also go to trial if a defendant who pleads not guilty requests it or is unsuccessful with the diversion program. The DCMTCC's procedural manual contains more information about the diversion program and trial procedures.
What Happens if You Plead No Contest to a Traffic Violation in the District of Columbia
Generally, there are three types of pleas that an individual can enter in a case brought before a District of Columbia court:
- Guilty plea;
- Not guilty plea; and
- No contest (or nolo contendere) plea.
Although guilty and not guilty pleas (as explained above) are more common, people may opt to enter a plea of no contest in certain circumstances, usually when they cannot recall the facts of a case.
By pleading no contest in DC, an individual effectively states that they do not admit guilt or responsibility for the offense but accept the court's punishment. The result is that the party will receive the penalties associated with a standard guilty plea but sidestep any liability that may arise from future civil proceedings or actions.
It should be noted, however, that when ticketed for photo enforcement, parking, or minor moving violations in DC, an offender only has three options to resolve the ticket:
- Admit guilt (i.e., pay the fine)
- Admit guilt with an explanation
- Deny the charge
There is no option to plead nolo contendere for minor traffic offenses. However, the opportunity to plead no contest to a traffic violation may be presented to those whose cases lead to an arraignment.
How Long Do Traffic Violations Stay on Your Record?
Traffic violations can be placed on two kinds of records in Washington DC: driver and criminal records. Typically, violations classified as infractions (minor offenses) only appear on driver records. Meanwhile, traffic violations that are also considered criminal offenses appear on both driver and criminal records. This practice holds despite where the violation happened—in the district or another jurisdiction.
When a traffic violation pops up on someone's DC driver record, the Department of Motor Vehicle (DMV) keeps the information indefinitely. Hence, if a person orders their record, that violation will show up, along with their past traffic offenses. Besides this, an individual will also glimpse points assessed on their driver record for DC and non-DC moving violations.
Unlike traffic convictions, violation points do not linger on a person's driving record forever. According to the DC DMV, such points only stay for two years from the date of the violation. Nevertheless, people can remove these points ahead of the due date by attending traffic school or an approved online defensive driving course. More information about removing moving violation points in DC can be obtained from the DMV's website.
Traffic violations listed on criminal records are treated the same way as driving records in DC, which is that the information will stay on a person's record forever. However, such records may qualify for sealing under DC law.
Can Traffic Violations Be Expunged/Sealed in the District of Columbia?
Yes. The Criminal Record Sealing Act of 2006 (codified at DC Code § 16-801 et seq.) provides for the sealing of certain traffic violations committed in the District of Columbia. Sealing refers to a legal process whereby certain records are hidden from public review but remain available for lawful purposes. In DC, the following traffic violations cannot be sealed by the Superior Court:
- Minor traffic offenses (i.e., offenses punishable by fine only)
- Misdemeanor traffic offenses, including:
- Driving under the influence, operating while impaired, and driving while intoxicated
- Driving without an operator's permit (2nd or subsequent offense)
- Operating without a valid commercial driver's license
As a general rule, although DC utilizes expungement (erasure) and sealing processes for criminal records, traffic violations are more often sealed than expunged.
What Happens if You Miss a Court Date for a Traffic Violation in the District of Columbia?
It is a serious matter to miss a court date for a traffic violation in the District of Columbia. Apart from the fines that may be assessed for the offense, the court may also release a bench warrant for one's arrest. As such, even if one's offense was minor, the party can be arrested and detained until the case is resolved.
Skipping a court date can also lead to the suspension of a driver's license. Worse still, the court can hold a hearing in the defaulter's absence, thereby making the party liable to any penalties determined, or charge the defaulter with a Failure to Appear (FTA). Per DC Code § 23–1327, a Failure to Appear is a separate offense that can be prosecuted as a misdemeanor or felony, depending on the classification of the original traffic violation.