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 many states an infraction is not considered a criminal offense and thus not 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, and 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, one state provides that any offense that is defined "without either designation as a felony or a misdemeanor or specification of the classification or the penalty is a petty offense" (see AZ ST § 13-602).

Common Examples Of Infractions

Chances are you or someone you know has been cited for an infraction. Some of the more common infractions include:

  • Traffic violations (although sometimes these can rise to the level of misdemeanors and felonies)
  • Littering
  • Boating violations
  • Fishing without a license
  • Building permit violations
  • Operating a business without a proper license
  • Jaywalking
  • 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. In California, for example, possession of less than 1 ounce of marijuana is considered an infraction. It's therefore subject to a fine, instead of prison time, and will not be included in a person's criminal record.

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, with an infraction 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 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.

Next Steps

Contact a qualified criminal lawyer to make sure your rights are protected.

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