An infraction, sometimes called a petty offense, is the violation of an administrative regulation, an ordinance, a municipal code, and, in some jurisdictions, a state or local traffic rule. In most states an infraction isn't considered a criminal offense and is rarely punishable by incarceration. Instead, such jurisdictions treat infractions as civil offenses. Even in jurisdictions that treat infractions as criminal offenses, incarceration is not usually contemplated as punishment. But when it is, confinement is limited to serving time in a local jail.
Like misdemeanors, infractions are often defined in very broad language. For example, Arizona defines them as offenses "without either designation as a felony or a misdemeanor or specification of the classification or the penalty is a petty offense."
Common Examples Of Infractions
Chances are you or someone you know has been cited for an infraction, most likely resulting in a fine or some other administrative penalty. Some of the more common infractions include:
- Traffic violations (although sometimes these can rise to the level of misdemeanors and felonies)
- Boating violations
- Fishing without a license
- Building permit violations
- Operating a business without a proper license
- Drinking in public
- Disturbing the peace
- Walking an unleashed dog
- Campsite violations
Also, while many states and the federal government still have fairly strict drug laws, there have been efforts to classify certain drug offenses as infractions instead of misdemeanors or felonies. Possession of less than 10 grams of marijuana is considered a civil offense in Maryland, punishable by a fine of up to $100 (but no jail time or other penalties). This type of violation isn't included in a person's criminal record in Maryland or other states with similar laws.
How Does The Infraction Process Work?
Typically, the process starts with the issuance of a citation. This may also be referred to as a notice of violation or notice to appear. The citation will often include:
- A citation number (this is usually your case number);
- A description of the violation(s) and whether it's an infraction or a misdemeanor;
- The relevant state law or city code;
- The name of the issuing agency and officer;
- The location of the courthouse;
- Deadlines for payment of the fine or for appearing in court; and
- Instructions for payment of the fine.
Unlike misdemeanor or felony crimes, which have all the protections of the criminal justice system, you have fewer rights in the infraction process because you're not facing a deprivation of your liberty. So, for example, you don't have the constitutional right to a jury trial (although your state may give you this right by law) and you also don’t have the right to free counsel (although you may hire an attorney at your own expense).
That being said, you still have many rights in the process. For example, you have the right to a hearing before a judge and the right target to present evidence and call witnesses, including the police officer or official that issued you the citation. You also have the right to appeal the judge's finding in your case and any fine imposed.
Charged with an Infraction? Contact an Attorney
Although infractions are among the most minor of offenses there can sometimes be unforeseen consequences. If you have questions about infractions, or you've been charged with one, you may want to speak to a criminal defense attorney to learn the possible impact they can have on your record.