Road Law
Ticket or civil penalty? What’s the difference?

By Jeff McConnell & James Mennella, Attorneys at law

We’ve had a lot of calls lately from drivers who received a ticket that, on its face, says it’s a “civil penalty.”

So, the first question to us is: “What’s a civil penalty?” And the second question: “What’s the difference between a civil penalty and a regular ticket?”

Without getting too technical, the difference between a true civil penalty and a regular ticket is really what happens after you pay your assessment to the particular court or agency that’s listed on your ticket. So whether your ticket is really a true, civil penalty or a regular ticket can make all the difference to your driver record.

Q. I got a ticket in Arizona for a red-light violation. I was never stopped by the highway patrol or any other law enforcement, and I didn’t even know about the ticket until I got it in my mail. The ticket says it’s a “camera ticket” and there’s a photograph of my truck that was supposed to have been taken when I didn’t stop for a red light. There’s no court date listed on the ticket and all it says is for me to send in my payment. Should I pay this ticket? Am I going to get points on my record if I do pay this ticket?

A. First, this particular red-light camera ticket isn’t a usual traffic ticket. Usually, when you get a ticket, it’s issued by some form of law enforcement officer in person at the side of the road, weigh station or port of entry. In this case, your red-light-camera ticket appears to be a true civil penalty. However, you should read all the instructions on your ticket, as many tickets will state if points will be assessed or appear on your driving record.

If you want to plead “not responsible” to the charge, you do so by mailing your challenge to an agency (usually an agency that’s connected with the particular state’s department of revenue). Once you mail your challenge, you’ll get a notice for an administrative hearing with a particular agency so you can appear to challenge the charge.

If you win your administrative hearing, the charge will be withdrawn and you’ll owe no money to the agency. If you don’t win, you’ll have to pay money to the agency but, because your charge is a true civil penalty, there should be no record of the charge appearing on your driver record.

Q. I got a ticket in Virginia for “Unauthorized Vehicle; 2 Axle Only.” I can’t believe I even got the ticket because there were no signs telling me that the lane I was in was for cars or motorcycles only. The officer didn’t listen to me when he gave me the ticket and said that I could go to court if I wanted.

When I called the court, the clerk told me that this ticket was a civil penalty and I could pay it without coming to court. So because this ticket is a civil penalty, I should probably just pay it because it won’t show up on my record anyway … right?

A. No. You should never simply pay any ticket until you’ve made an informed decision about how a conviction of the ticket will affect you. Just because you were told that your ticket is a civil penalty doesn’t always mean that it won’t show up as a conviction on your record.

If you want to be absolutely sure that your civil penalty charge won’t appear on your record if you pay it, call the court again and ask what happens to the ticket if you do simply pay it. Does the clerk stamp your ticket “convicted” and send it to the state department of motor vehicles for processing or does the clerk take your payment and simply file your ticket away?

Usually, if the clerk reports your ticket as a conviction, it’s going to show up on your driving record. If the clerk simply takes your money and files your ticket away in the court files, it’s likely no report of your ticket will appear on your record. LL


Send any questions or comments regarding transportation law to: Jeff McConnell and James Mennella, Road Law, 3441 W. Memorial, Suite 4, Oklahoma City, OK 73134; call 405-242-2030, fax 888-588-8983, or email

This column is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of Land Line Magazine or its publisher. Please remember everyone's legal situation is different. Consult with an attorney for specific advice on your situation.