Article in Law / Criminal / Defense
Common Questions and Answers about what to do when you receive a speeding ticket, stopsign or stoplight ticket in North Carolina.


1. Can I fight my speeding ticket with a trial? Yes. You can always fight your traffic ticket with a trial. The trial would be held in District Court, where a Judge and not a Jury would decide the case. If tried and convicted, you would be convicted of your traffic ticket as charged. For example, if you received a speeding ticket for 53 mph in a 35 mph zone, and had a trial on your ticket, if found guilty your conviction would be to 53 mph in a 35 zone. The Judge is under no duty or obligation to find you guilty of a lesser included offense, such as speeding 44 mph in a 35 zone.

2. How does radar work? Radar measures relative motion. Radar works by bouncing beams off of two objects, and by calculating the distance to the objects and the rate of change, it’s able to figure out a speed. Anything that interferes with this process affects the radar. For example, the tires of a vehicle going 60 mph move anywhere between 0 mph and 120 mph, depending on the point where the radar hits the tire – the top of the tire is doing 120 mph relative to the road, and the bottom of the tire (which touches the road) is doing 0 mph. Foreign objects, such a rainfall, are also factors.

3. Is radar proof of guilt? No. Radar alone is not sufficient evidence for a conviction at trial. The State must offer some opinion testimony, almost always by a police officer, that the vehicle was in fact speeding. Radar evidence corroborates the opinion testimony.

4. Can I pay my citation by mailing it to the Clerk along with payment? It depends on the citation. Some citations can be paid through the mail, and others cannot. Judges across North Carolina have decided which citations can be paid through the mail. However, keep in mind that you will be convicted of the offense as charged, should you choose to deal with your citation that way. You should always consult with an attorney rather than pay a citation through the mail.

5. Should I pay my citation by mailing it to the Clerk along with payment? No. It is rarely a good idea to pay off a citation through the mail. You will be entering a plea to the speed as charged. That is, a speeding ticket for 53 mph in a 35 mph zone, paid through the mail, will result in a conviction for 53 mph in a 35 mph zone, and the consequences of that conviction. A plea bargain is not available. A court appearance, whether or not through an attorney, creates the possibility of having the ticket reduced.

6. How does a plea bargain work? A plea bargain is where a charge is reduced, or among charges one is dismissed, in exchange for a plea. For example, you might plead “not guilty” to a speeding ticket for 53 mph in a 35 zone, but would plead responsible to speeding 44 mph in a 35 zone.

7. What is the purpose of a plea bargain? Since the Prosecutor has a very high volume of cases to handle, it’s not possible to have a trial on every single case. Thus, the Prosecutor has an incentive to try to “work out deals,” which many times can be in your favor.

8. Who issues a Prayer for Judgment Continued (PJC)? The presiding Judge chooses whether to issue a Prayer for Judgment Continued (PJC). The Prosecutor doesn’t have the authority to give you one. However, the Prosecutor does have a “right to be heard” in open court, and may approve or disapprove of the PJC.

9. Is a PJC always a good thing? No. A PJC is not always a good thing. You need the advice of an experienced lawyer on this matter.

10. What is a driving school? Driving school is used to promote driver education. Courses usually run between four and eight hours in length. The North Carolina Heath and Safety Council sponsors driving courses across the state, including the Raleigh area. Driving courses are only mandatory if ordered by a Judge. However, drivers, upon the advice of an experienced attorney, can go to an appropriate driving course before their court date, in order to be in a position to get the best deal possible.

11. Should I sign up for driving school? You need the advice of an experienced attorney, because all cases are different.

12. Do I need to appear in court? It depends on your case. Sometimes you can pay off a citation through the mail. Many times you can hire a lawyer to go to court for you. Should you not want to go to court, but do want to prudently take care of your case, you should always hire a lawyer to look after the matter. A lawyer will be able to try to plea bargain the ticket, to get the best deal possible for your situation. Paying the citation through the mail is like giving up.

13. Should I hire a lawyer? You should always hire a lawyer if you are charged with a crime. You should never face the criminal justice system alone. It’s because we care that we say that. If you were to ask a Prosecutor or a Judge whether you should hire a lawyer, neither one can answer the question because it violates their ethical duties. However, a Prosecutor quoting a Judge said onetime: “I can’t answer that question. But I can tell you that if I had a daughter, and she received a seatbelt ticket, I would hire a lawyer for her.”

14. Can my case be postponed to a later date? It depends on your case. However, it is regular for at least one postponement, or continuance, to be allowed. Be warned that you should never go to court without an attorney, and count on the case being continued.

15. Will the Prosecutor give me legal advice? No. The Prosecutor cannot give you any advice about your case. The Prosecutor represents the State of North Carolina.

16. How many Driver’s License Points am I allowed before my license is taken away? It depends. For North Carolinians, usually a maximum of twelve points is allowed before your license can be taken away by the NC DMV. However, certain convictions, certain combinations of convictions, or certain circumstances can also trigger a revocation, even though you have fewer than twelve license points. You should always seek the advice of an experienced lawyer if you’ve received a traffic citation.

17. Is it possible to lose my license for a single ticket? Yes. It’s possible for you to lose your license for a single conviction. You should always seek the advice of an experienced lawyer if you’ve received a traffic citation, because the lawyer knows the law. The law of the road is more involved and complex than it may first appear to be.

18. What are insurance points? Insurance points are assigned to certain traffic citation convictions. They can add up over time. Points for a given conviction can stay with you for only three years. The total number of insurance points you have at any particular time corresponds to fixed percentage amounts that your rates will increase by. Keep in mind, that there are other ways for your rates to increase due to a traffic conviction.

19. Will the cost of my car insurance go up because of my ticket? It’s impossible to answer that question without knowing the facts of your case. The bottom line is that certain convictions carry insurance points, some more than others. Your insurance company could also sell your policy to the North Carolina Reinsurance Facility, which pools policies of “high-risk” drivers, which could raise your rates. There is no substitute for an experienced attorney to counsel you about these matters.

20. Could I go to jail for my traffic ticket? It depends on your ticket and the circumstances. For a speeding ticket or other non-alcohol related moving violation, it’s the small minority of cases that result in a jail sentence. Your ticket would have to be an offense greater than an infraction for jail to be a possibility. The Judge determines whether jail is appropriate, not the Prosecutor, but the Prosecutor would have a right “to be heard” to express approval or disapproval. As always when facing the criminal justice system, the advice of a lawyer is invaluable in knowing possible outcomes and attempting to control them.

21. What is probation? Probation occurs when a jail or prison sentence is ordered by the Judge, but is “suspended” so long as certain specified conditions or obligations are complied with and met. Probation can be either supervised by a probation officer, or unsupervised.

22. Could I receive probation for my traffic ticket? It depends on your ticket and the circumstances. For non-alcohol traffic offenses in North Carolina, only a small percentage of the total number charged result in probationary sentences. Most tickets are handled by quick plea bargains to make the system run smoothly. Your ticket would have to be an offense greater than an infraction for probation to be a possibility. The advice, experience, and knowledge of a lawyer best serve your interest with respect to all potential consequences of conviction. Always, always seek the advice of a lawyer if you’ve received a traffic violation.

23. What is community service? Community service can be ordered by a Judge in all misdemeanor and felony cases upon conviction. Community service is part of a probationary sentence. A specific number of hours to be completed by a specific date comprises the structure of a typical sentence. In order to know whether community service is a possibility on a traffic citation, you should consult an experienced lawyer.

24. What if I received a ticket in North Carolina, but I live and have a driver’s license in another state? There is a strong likelihood that the governing motor vehicle agency of your home state will find out about your North Carolina ticket. You can’t make a North Carolina traffic ticket “go away” by not showing up to court and never coming back to the state. Soon after missing your North Carolina court date, it’s highly likely a notice will be sent to your home state, and your home state will revoke your driver’s license. To learn exactly how a North Carolina traffic ticket will affect your license in your home state, you should contact an experienced traffic attorney in your home state. A local lawyer should handle the North Carolina ticket.

25. What if I have a North Carolina commercial driver’s license and receive a traffic ticket? Driver’s license points are different for CDL’s. The law varies in other respects, too. You should seek the counsel of a lawyer if you have a CDL and have received a traffic ticket.

26. Can my lawyer pick the Prosecutor for my traffic ticket? No. No one can pick the Prosecutor who will prosecute a traffic ticket. The Office of the District Attorney assigns certain Prosecutors to certain courtrooms to handle the dockets in those courtrooms.

27. Can my lawyer pick the Judge for my traffic ticket? No. No one can pick the Judge who will preside over the courtroom where your traffic ticket is docketed.

28. Does it matter that I wasn’t speeding, like the police officer said I was? Probably not. It’s possible that the State could dismiss the ticket, but never count on it. It’s very, very unlikely that your ticket will be dismissed because you claim you weren’t speeding. If you don’t want to plead to the ticket, then you’re facing a trial, where a Judge will decide your case. The Prosecutor will present evidence as to why you’re guilty, usually calling the police officer to testify, who will want to tell the Judge what the radar reading was (if radar was used).

29. What is the burden of proof for a traffic ticket? The State has the burden of proving you guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Beyond a reasonable doubt is the standard used to determine guilt in all criminal cases.

30. Can my license be revoked for more than one reason? Yes. For example, two convictions for speeding greater than 55 mph during the same year could cause you to lose your license, but if the driver’s license points of those convictions, along with others on your record, total at least twelve, then a second revocation can be entered as well.

31. How can I get my revoked license back? It’s important to ask your lawyer this question. The first thing to do is to pinpoint why your license is revoked. Once the cause or causes of the revocation is figured out, then your lawyer can determine when you should expect to be able to get your license back. Furthermore, the lawyer can determine if there is any way to fix or help the problem.

32. Is community service available to help get a PJC for my traffic ticket? It depends on the Judge. It’s possible under the law to perform community service between court dates and have a PJC entered at a later court date. The Judge makes the decision whether to allow it or disallow it. To know whether you need a PJC, you should have a lawyer help you with your case. A PJC is not always a good thing. The lawyer will be able to advise you about whether to ask for it and what the terms are.

33. Do I have to speak in court if I don’t have a lawyer? Yes. If you have a lawyer, you don’t have to speak in court. Without a lawyer, you are representing yourself and must speak before the court.

34. How long does court take for a traffic ticket? Sometimes a short time – less than an hour – and other times much longer. If your case is continued to a later court date – which can happen after you’ve waited a while for your case to be called – you must come back at that later court date. The court does not hurry up because you might be missing work, or late to pick children up, or for any other reason.

35. How should I dress for court on a traffic ticket? The Judge has authority over the decorum of the courtroom. If you’re attending court, whether you have a lawyer or not, then you should aim to look as well-dressed, respectful, and presentable as possible.

36. Can only my lawyer get my driving record? No. The NC DMV allows for individual citizens to obtain copies of their North Carolina driving records. The record can be ordered in person at one of their offices, or online. Your lawyer, however, would also obtain your driving record, in order to analyze it to best represent you.

37. Does it matter that I didn’t mean to speed? No. Not paying attention, an honest mistake, overlooking a change in speed limit, having a faulty speedometer … none of it matters. The State need only prove that you were in fact speeding, and excuses don’t matter. Sometimes, after you’ve entered a plea, the Judge may want to know why you were speeding. Some explanation, especially ones that can be documented (such as having a faulty speedometer calibrated and replaced) count in front of some Judges.

38. What is Improper Equipment? Improper Equipment is a non-moving violation, unlike a speeding ticket, which is a moving violation. It’s considered a lesser-included offense of speeding and some other traffic violations. Some jurisdictions offer pleas to Improper Equipment, and others won’t. The present policy in Wake County is to not offer pleas to Improper Equipment.

39. What is an infraction? An infraction is the most minor type of offense that you can be charged with in North Carolina. Misdemeanor and Felony offenses are the other two types of offenses. The consequences of an infraction citation include paying a fine, paying court costs, losing your license, and having the cost of your car insurance increase.

40. Is my speeding ticket an infraction? Not necessarily. The speed zone combined with how fast you were going determines whether a speeding ticket is an infraction. Your speeding ticket could possibly be a misdemeanor, which means the consequences could be even more severe. In order to know whether your ticket is an infraction or not, you need to have the help of an experienced lawyer.

41. Does it matter that it was raining when I got my ticket? No. In terms of whether you are guilty of a traffic violation, the weather has no bearing. If the Judge asks for an explanation for why you violated the law, sometimes, depending on the Judge, explaining the circumstances can help.

42. What are driver’s license points? Driver’s license points form just a part of an overall system that the NC DMV uses to take away your license. Convictions for certain traffic citations carry driver’s license points. The target number for a suspension is usually twelve, but if you’ve already lost your license, you won’t need that many to put your license at risk. When a lawyer looks at your case, one of several considerations the lawyer makes concerns license points. You should always seek the help of an experienced lawyer if you’ve received a traffic citation.

43. I’ve never had a driver’s license and have been caught driving. What do I do? You should hire a lawyer. The lawyer will look at what you’ve been charged with and figure out the best way to handle the situation. As a misdemeanor offense, driving without a license could mean jail time. Of course, other factors, such as hopefully one day being lawfully licensed to drive, are considerations as well. There is no substitute for the counsel and advice of a good lawyer.

44. If I hire a lawyer, do I have to do what the lawyer tells me to do? No. A large majority of people do hire a lawyer to use the lawyer’s advice and expertise. If there is a choice involved with your case, such as having a trial or pleading guilty and hoping the Judge will grant you a PJC, the lawyer’s duty is to inform you of the choice so that you can decide. Ultimately, you as the client control the representation. On a typical speeding ticket, however, where the lawyer goes to court on your behalf without you being there, you would give the lawyer authority to act on your behalf to do what the lawyer believes is in your best interest.

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About the Author 

David Coolidge
Duke University Law Graduate Specializing in Criminal Defense. Misdemeansors, felonies, speeding tickets, and other traffic violations.

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