A siren goes off behind you. That light was yellow, you are certain. The officer who comes to the window disagrees. She takes your license and registration, goes back to the squad car for an excruciating ten minutes, and returns with a citation.
Getting a ticket is an imposition and an expensive lesson, especially if an insurance rate hike is included. But it's also often a criminal infraction, a category that covers a rather large amount of misconduct. (Note that some states consider certain kinds of infractions like traffic tickets to be civil, rather than criminal, offenses.)
Criminal infractions are the least serious class of crimes and fall below misdemeanors in severity. They include traffic stops for minor moving violations and other low-level misconduct. Other names for infractions include petty misdemeanors, petty offenses, and violations. In general, the penalty for a criminal infraction is limited to a fine and does not lead to jail time.
The most common type of infraction is a traffic violation, such as speeding, running a red light, and failing to signal a turn. (More serious vehicular offenses, like driving under the influence or a hit-and-run, are considered crimes and carry the potential for incarceration if convicted.) In addition to driving infractions, jaywalking, loitering and, in some jurisdictions, possession of small amounts of marijuana are also criminal infractions.
Although a stop for an infraction is not as serious as a criminal arrest, such a stop does enable police officers to potentially escalate such a stop into an arrest and to potentially conduct some type of search, which is itself invasive and can lead to more serious charges.
In general, a police officer cannot conduct a search based simply on the stop itself. But if the officer sees, smells, or otherwise observes something during the stop that would give rise to a reasonable suspicion that criminal activity was afoot, the officer can conduct a search.
A few states allow police officers to arrest individuals stopped for criminal infractions. Upon arrest, an officer may conduct a brief frisk (or pat-down) if the officer reasonably suspects the person might be carrying a weapon. Generally, officers cannot search the vehicle unless they have reason to believe the vehicle contains weapons, evidence, or contraband.
As indicated above, if a police officer observes evidence of a crime during a stop for an infraction, the person stopped may be charged with the crime in addition to the infraction. For example, where an officer stops a driver for running a red light and then smells alcohol on the person's breath, the officer can arrest the individual for driving under the influence and conduct a search of the person and the vehicle.
Even if you believe the officer is acting improperly, it's almost always best not to escalate the situation or resist arrest. If you are innocent, acting out could result in charges for resisting arrest or obstruction. Worse, the situation could unravel and you could be injured.
Criminal infractions typically carry a fine but no jail time. Because there is no risk of incarceration, some jurisdictions treat infractions like civil actions and even hear them in civil courts. As a result, the prosecution's burden of proof might be lower than it is in a criminal trial. It also means you may not have a right to a court-appointed attorney.
Conviction of certain criminal infractions can be expensive, both in the amount of the fine (and surcharges) imposed and in the effect the conviction may have on insurance rates. Courts will sometimes allow those convicted of criminal infractions to attend traffic school or other diversionary programs, which may reduce the financial impact of the conviction.
Ignoring infractions can lead to an increase in the fine amount and, in some instances, to an elevation of the charge to a misdemeanor with the added potential penalty of jail time. In some states, an infraction may be charged as a misdemeanor if the person has been convicted of multiple infractions within a certain amount of time.
Sometimes it's possible to respond to a criminal infraction by paying it or by going to court without hiring an attorney. But if you have multiple tickets or believe the stop wasn't justified, you might want to consult legal counsel. And, if you have been charged with a misdemeanor or felony arising out what began as an infraction, be sure to consult with a lawyer.