RECEIVE A TRAFFIC TICKET IN VIRGINIA? Simply Prepaying the Fine Could Be Your SECOND Mistake
May 14, 2014 By Jennifer L. Rowlett
If you receive a traffic citation in Virginia for a relatively minor offense (i.e. failure to yield the right of way or running a stop sign), you will be required to attend a traffic hearing in relation to your ticket. That hearing often occurs within several months of the citation date. Many people opt to prepay their fine to avoid the requirement that they physically appear at the hearing. The prepayment serves as a “written appearance” for the hearing in lieu of a physical presence. Similarly, some people appear at the hearing with an intent to “fight their ticket,” and then after feeling a bit overwhelmed by the process, decide to enter a plea of “nolo contendere” (no contest) as opposed to admitting actual guilt. While the decisions relating to a traffic hearing seem rather innocuous, they can have lasting ramifications and should not be made lightly. So what is the big deal about prepaying a traffic citation? Virginia Code § 19.2-254.1 states that when an accused tenders payment rather than appear for a hearing, such tender of payment shall itself be deemed a waiver of a court hearing and the entry of a guilty plea. Wow! The payment of the ticket before appearing for a hearing is an admission of guilt to the traffic charge. Okay. So prepayment of the ticket is an admission of guilt. So what? Well, Virginia Code § 8.01-418 states that a plea of guilty or nolo contendere in a traffic case will be admissible in a civil action arising out of the same occurrence. For example, if a traffic violation caused an accident or other harmful event, the driver may become a defendant in a civil suit. In almost every circumstance, a driver charged with the traffic violation does not receive notice about a civil lawsuit relating to that violation for quite some time after the traffic hearing has concluded. As a result, that driver’s decision to prepay the $75 traffic citation to avoid the time, expense, and inconvenience of an appearance in traffic court may result in an admission to damning evidence of negligence in a civil lawsuit. Note, however, Virginia Code § 19.2-254.1 also states that for a traffic violation resulting in personal injury or property damage, a hearing is required and the citation cannot be simply paid by mailing in a check. In that case, the driver must appear for a hearing and has a new set of issues. Not only will a guilty plea be admissible in a subsequent civil suit, but everything the driver says in the hearing will also be admissible as prior sworn testimony. The moral of this story is: if you receive a traffic citation in Virginia, you should think seriously (and maybe consult an attorney!) before simply writing that check and assuming the entire affair is behind you and is nothing more than a bad memory. Similarly, in situations involving bodily injury, insurance representatives should counsel their insureds on the ramifications of prepaying such citations and may want to consider retaining counsel for the insured in the traffic case.