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Free California Traffic Court and Criminal Case Self Help.   
Modified - 08/26/2014 02:36pm Traffic Court FAQ Answered by an Attorney.
Summary: Attorney Christopher Dort answers commonly asked traffic court and misdemeanor questions such as: How to find a warrant, how to clear a drivers license hold, and what is a bench warrant.

  Setting Court Dates:
How Do I find my Court Date?
Can I Get A Court Date After a Failure to Appear?
Can a Failure to Appear Lead to Jail Time?
What Happens After a Missed Court Date?
What is a Bench Warrant?
Can I get a Continuance by Phone?

Missed Court Dates:
What is a Legit Excuse for Missing a Court Date?
How Can an Attorney Help with a Failure to Appear Problem?

Correctable Violations:

How Do I Get Proof of Correction?
What Does the Term Bail Mean?

Suspended Drivers License:
Can a Driving Privilege Be Suspended If I Never Had a License?
Why Is My Drivers License Suspended?
What Is A Vehicle Code 40509.5 hold?
How Do You Clear a VC 40509.5 Hold?
Why Did I Not Receive a Notice of Suspension From the DMV?
  Fines and Bail:
What is a Bail Bond?
How Do You Post Bail?
Can a Person Go To Jail for Failure to Pay a Fine?
Can I Make Fine Payments and Keep My Drivers License?
Can I Elect Jail Time Instead of Paying a Fine?

Clearing Warrants:
Why was I not notified of the warrants on my record?
Is There a Way to Clear a Warrant by Phone or Mail?
How Is a Warrant Cleared?
Is the Court required to Send a Bill When a Fine is Due?
If I Have a Warrant Can I Just Pay the Fine To End the Case?
How Long Can I Wait to Take Care of a Warrant?

Auto Insurance Violations:
Is Proof of Insurance Required to Resolve an Insurance Fine?
Can a driver get insurance if they do not own a car?

It is intended for general traffic court self help reference and info only, not advice on any specific case.  It may not apply to issues outside of California.  

The information may not apply to serious criminal cases. Statute links are for educational use only and are not official Government publications.  For more info on a specific case, contact the Court where your issue is pending or an attorney to review your specific problem or documents. Only a licensed attorney can give specific legal advice about your case. Use is by permission only and subject to agreement to the User Agreement.

Q. How Do I Find My Court Date?

A. On a traffic citation, it is to look on the citation itself. But if you do not have the original citation, the calling the court clerk is the best way to find out when a court date is set.

In some courts, case info and court date info is available online, but calling the clerk is the most reliable way to get a court date. Going in person is even better.

For most California traffic tickets (citations), the date for the Arraignment (first court date) is listed on the citation at the bottom (ticket).

In some courts, this date at the bottom of the ticket is the deadline to go into court and select an option for dealing with the citation, such as plead guilty or "not guilty". 

Either way, the "promise to appear" date on a citation is the deadline for taking care of the citation. 

A ticket is also known as a Promise to Appear, and by signing it, you are promising to appear in court on the date listed on your ticket. For this reason, it is important to read a ticket carefully, and to keep it in a safe place for future review.  The court may change your date later, so you should contact the court clerk to verify the date.

For most California Counties, the ticket is prepared on an official form, with a court date listed on the bottom of the citation. When you sign a citation with a court date listed, you are promising to appear in court on that date.

Courts are not required to send "Courtesy Notices" out for citations.  Failure to get a Courtesy Notice is not a defense to a failure to appear charge.

Q. How Can I Set A Court Date If I Missed the Date on a Ticket?

If you have missed a court date listed on a traffic citation (or misdemeanor criminal case), generally, the only way to set a court date is to appear at the clerks office and request a calendar setting.

Whether there is a warrant or not, the court clerk sets the dates.  Depending on the case, some courts will allow a walk in appearance, others require setting a date in advance.

But if you missed a date on a traffic ticket by only a few days (one week), you should call the court clerk first to verify the status of the case.  The court may have changed your date, or given you an automatic extension.

An Attorney can assist with a missed court date and get a case back on the courts docket. In most misdemeanor cases and traffic citations, an attorney can go to court for the defendant.  In general, there is no way to set a court date by telephone.

Q. How Do I Find Out Why My Drivers License is Suspended?

In California, only the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) Can Give you accurate information on the reason for a drivers license suspension. The most common cause of a drivers license suspension is a failure to appear in court on a signed promise to appear (Traffic Ticket).

DMV may also suspend a drivers license when a driver is involved in a collision without insurance, for an alcohol related arrest, due to a medical condition, such as a history of blackouts, or for a failure to pay child support.

DMV does send out notices of suspension to the addres they have on file for hte driver, and the law requires the driver to keep that address at DMV upto date.

Calling the DMV Office of Driver Safety is usually the quickest way to get information on a suspension if you do not have access to the official notice. If you find the cause, and need to correct it, make sure you get the case number, and the courthouse or location of the matter.

If you have outstanding court cases causing a suspension, an experienced attorney may be able to help you solve the problem in a cost effective way. For More Info, Read Our Blog Article: Causes of Drivers License Suspensions

Q. What Is A VC 40509.5 hold?

When a person misses a traffic court date, most California traffic courts will place a hold on the drivers license of the person by notifying the Department of Motor Vehicles of the failure to appear. California Vehicle Code section 40509.5 is the Statute, or law, that allows the court to place the hold on the license. This is what is known as a 40509.5 hold.

Once the Department of Motor Vehicles received notice of the 40509.5 hold, the Department will suspend the drivers license of the person (usually with 30 days notice). The suspension lasts until the court clears the hold. Once a hold is cleared, the Department of Motor Vehicles usually requires a driver appear in the DMV office to pay a re issuance fee and get a new drivers license card.

Q. How Do You Clear a VC 40509.5 Hold?

The process for clearing a Veh. Code sec. 40509.5 hold, varies greatly from court to court. The differences are actually amazing. Usually paying a fine in full and admitting guilt to everything will close a case. Once a case is closed, the hold will be released, however it may take days or weeks.

In Los Angeles County Superior Court and Orange County Superior Court, a court appearance on a case will often get a hold cleared unless there are multiple holds.

In Solano County, they refuse to release the hold until the defendants posts the full bail on the entire case to set a court date - which is ridiculous because that is the same cost as admitting guilt to everything - so Solano County discourages people from adjudicating their cases once a hold is placed. This unique policy also prevents people from requesting traffic school without paying for everything in full up front before getting a court date.

In San Diego County Traffic Court, they are interested in helping people clear old cases, and a faxed request for arraignment from an attorney will often get the hold released.

Some courts charge a $15 "DMV abstract fee" to release the hold. Others charge $10, and some courts, such as Santa Clara County, do not charge at all. Because of these differences, (and confusion) is it necessary to get detailed information on your court if you need to get your license reinstated after a 40509.5 hold right away.

You should not assume that your hold is released once you set a court date. May clerks will simply ignore the drivers license hold when setting a court date, and will not tell you if you can get the hold released. You must ask about the hold to get info on how to clear it. An attorney can go to court for you and clear a 40509.5 hold.

Q. What Happens If a Person Misses a Court Date on a California Traffic Court Case?

A. Missing a court date is never a good idea, but exactly what happens after a missed court date depends on the charges.

When a person fails to pay a fine or misses a traffic court hearing (or they think you missed one) - the court generally does 3 things:

1) they issue a bench warrant; 2) charge the person with a new misdemeanor crime (for example, Failure to Appear under Cal. Vehicle Code 40508a); and 3) they place a hold on the persons driver's license under California Vehicle Code section 40509.5. The 40509.5 hold then results in a suspension of a persons license by the Department of Motor Vehicles. This is known as the "40509.5 holds" seen on many court web sites.

Most states will honor a CA DMV suspension and will suspend a drivers license in their state based upon the CA DMVs action. This is the case in at least the following states: NV, CO, FL, AZ, AK, and others.

Some courts, such as the San Bernardino County Superior Court, will routinely suspend a drivers license and issue a bench warrant. Other courts, such as Los Angeles County Superior Court, often will impose a VC 40509.5 hold, and thereby suspend your drivers license, but not issue a warrant.

A second failure to appear on any case will usually draw a warrant.

A misdemeanor failure to appear charge (Veh. Code 40508a) carries possible jail time, and if you are convicted of the misdemeanor, it will remain visible on a background check for years to come.

When a failure to appear charge is added to a traffic court case, the bail amount (or full value fine amount) on the case increases substantially. This is because there is a separate penalty for the violation of vehicle code section 40508a - Failure to Appear.

Even if you think there is nothing you can do to pay a fine, you should still make the required court appearance. A phone call or letter to the traffic court on the morning of your appearance will not protect you. Transportation problems are never accepted as acceptable excuses for missing a court date.

There are defenses to a failure to appear charge. For example, if the court changes your court date and fails to give proper notice of the change, you may have a defense. The law does not allow a court to change hearing dates without giving notice to all parties in interest.

However, if you sign a ticket with a written promise to appear, and then miss the appearance, there are only a few legitimate defenses.

Q. What is a bench warrant?

A. A bench warrant is a court order directing law enforcement personnel (Sheriffs Office, California Highway Patrol, City Police, etc.) to arrest an individual upon contact to bring them to the issuing court for a hearing.

There are many types of bench warrants. In some cases, the arresting officer has authority to set a court date for the arrestee, and let them go. Some bench warrants have bail amounts that must be deposited with the court before release. Some bench warrants are "no release" or "no bail" warrants. Bench warrants are one of the top reasons people are arrested during a traffic stop. Bench warrants are usually issued because a defendant does not appear in court for a hearing.

Q. How do I obtain proof of correction for a Registration or Insurance Violation?

In California, Corrections for most mechanical violations (correctable violations) can be inspected by the county Sheriff, California Highway Patrol, a DMV official, or other approved law enforcement agencies. To get proof that you have corrected the problem, drivers must also pay a transaction fee (according to Vehicle Code section 40611(a)).

Proof of correction by an authorized law enforcement agency can come on any form, even if the original ticket is lost. But the proof of correction must include: 1) the Inspecting officer's signature and printed name; 2) the Badge number

For Registration and License Violations Submit the proof of correction by having the police officer inspect your vehicle and validate your ticket.

If you were cited with a registration violation and have proof of valid registration from the DMV, you may submit a copy of your registration with the appropriate bail to the Court.

If you cannot provide proof for the vehicle cited, you will be required to pay the bail associated with that violation or appear in court.

Some violations such as warrants, or violations of vehicle code section sections 12500, 14601, and 23109 may require a mandatory court appearance. Contact the Court for further information.

Q. Can I Get a Continuance by Phone?

A. Maybe.  In infraction cases, it is possible in some courts. Some of the smaller courts do grant continuances by telephone on a traffic infraction. El Dorado, Santa Cruz and others have been known to do it.  But it varies from court to court.  DO not count on being able to get a continuance by phone.  Call early if you really need the time.

You cannot get a continuance by phone on a misdemeanor, or felony court date.   

Q. What does the term "Bail" mean for a warrant?

A. Bail in a traffic court case is the amount the court has set as a cash deposit that must be paid to the court before a person may be released from custody (or a trial date set). It is effectively a deposit to ensure that you will return to court. Bail can be paid to the court in cash, or a defendant can hire a bail bond company to post bail for them. When a bail bond company is used, the company charges a fee to use their own resources to post the bail amount. When a defendant uses his or her own money to post bail, the money is return once the case is ended � as long as all court appearances are made. If a bail bond company is hired to post bail, the fees paid to the bail bond company are not returned to the Defendant.

Q. Can a Failure to Appear Lead to Jail Time?

A. Yes. When a person misses a court deadline or fails to appear for a hearing, the court will add charges to the case that can result in jail time. Often, the courts will also issue an arrest warrant. A violation of California Vehicle Code section 40508(a) has a maximum sentence of 6 months in the county jail and is a misdemeanor.

Most failure to appear cases do not result in jail time. But when they do, it is usually because the defendant gets caught driving, or arrested on a warrant.

Q. How Long Can a Person Wait To Take Care of a Failure to Appear charge or a Warrant?

A. Warrants should be taken care of immediately. Warrants do not go away by themselves, and a warrant can lead to a persons arrest at home, work, or on the road. When a person is arrested on a warrant, the consequences of the arrest are often much worse than if the person would have gone to court voluntarily. It is not a good decision to wait to take care of a warrant for any reason. A person who waits to take care of a warrant becausse they think they do not have the money to pay a fine, is making a poor decision.

Q. Can I elect Jail Time or Community Service Instead of Paying a Fine?

A. Generally, the answer is no. The reason is that it costs the government a lot of money to send a person to jail. The government would much rather have you pay, than to pay for you. However, if a fine is not paid on time, the court may impose an increased jail term to satisfy the debt.

The courts will give you lots of time to pay whatever fines are required, and in some counties an alternative to paying the fines is community service or sheriffs work program. A defendant can make a request for community service or work program during any court appearance. The court may or may not grant the request.

Q. Why did I not receive a notice of suspension from the DMV?

A. The Department of Motor Vehicles sends all notices to the address they have on file for a driver. California law requires that all drivers keep DMV informed of their current address. Often, when a person does not receive a DMV notice, it is because the address in DMVs files is outdated. Because of the law that requires a person to keep DMV informed of their current address, usually the fact that a driver did not receive a DMV notice is not a legitimate defense.

Unfortunately, in many situations, if DMV does send notices to a wrong address, it doesn't make any difference at all. This is because you are required by law to make sure that DMV has your correct mailing address at all times, and failing to notify them of a change in address itself is a misdemeanor.

Q. If I have a bench warrant or 40508a warrant can I still just pay off the fine and be done with it?

A. Usually, the answer is No. In most cases with an outstanding warrant, one or more court appearances are mandatory. In some cases an attorney can appear for you, and in some cases the defendant must make a personal appearance with or without an attorney to resolve a warrant.

Q. What is a Legitimate Excuse for Missing a Court Date?

A. When a court date is missed, generally teh court will add new charges to the case. Excuses are not defenses to the new charges. There are defenses to a failure to appear charge. They are limited, but include: 1) incarceration; 2) lack of actual notice of a court date; 3) hospitalization; 4) death or incapacitation.

Excuses that will probably never work, but are often tried, include:

1) I was homeless; 2) I was going through a divorce; 3) I did not have transportation; 4) did not receive a courtesy notice from the court (your ticket serves as notice of a required court appearance); 5) I did not have proof of registration or insurance (you have to go to court anyway!); and 6) I did not have the money to pay the fine (terrible excuse).

Q. How Can an Attorney Help with a Failure to Appear Case?

A. An attorney can appear in court for you on most traffic and misdemeanor criminal matters. Under authority of CA Penal Code section 977, an attorney can set dates for your case, negotiate plea agreements, and take your case through a trial if necessary. However, in some cases, such as old warrant cases, a personal appearance in court is required.

Q. What is a Bail Bond?

A. A bail bond is an amount of money that a court holds in order to ensure a person shows up in court on a specified day. Many bail bondsmen and agencies will put up the money for the bond for a defendant in exchange for a price.

Q. How Do You Clear A Bench Warrant?

A. The procedure for clearing a bench warrant varies depending on the type of case and the charges. For traffic court warrants issued on infraction and misdemeanor cases, usually a court appearance by the defendant or an attorney for the defendant is required to clear the warrant and get the case back on track.

During the court appearance, the defendant must request that the court recall the warrant and allow the defendant to remain out of jail on their own recognizance. When a warrant has been issued, the court can either recall the warrant, or order the defendant taken into custody until the case is resolved. In some cases, posting of a cash bond to the court is necessary to release a warrant on a criminal or more serious case.

Q. Why was I not notified of the warrants on my record?

A. The court is not required to mail anything to a defendant when a warrant is issued. Generally, a warrant is issued because the court has lost track of a defendant, and/or because the defendant failed to obey a court order. However, in traffic court, at the time a warrant is issued, the court will normally mail a notice to the last know address of he defendant. If the address is not correct, the notice will be mailed to the wrong address, but this is not a defense to the problem that caused the warrant.

Q. Is There a Way to Clear a Warrant by Phone or Mail?

A. Generally, no. Calling the court or writing a letter once a warrant is issued will have no affect. A court appearance is normally required to take care of a case with a warrant, and in some cases, time in jail is required. If a defendant knows about an outstanding warrant, they should not wait to be arrested. Contacting the Court for information on how to clear it, or hiring an attorney is a better option than doing nothing.

Q. Will I be put in jail if I failed to pay my fine?

A. You will not necessarily be jailed for your failure to pay your fine. You may set a court date to appear to address the warrant or you may pay the fine in full.

Q. If I have a failure to appear/failure to pay, can I make payments and still keep my drivers license while Im making payments?

A. The answer to this would depend on the charges. You can make payments on a failure to appear and keep your license. On a failure to pay, the full amount is due. You must either pay in full or set a court date to appear. However, merely setting a court date will not release the license. On the date set, the judge may be able to make other orders to assist you. Contact the Court for the status of your case.

Q. Is the Court required to send notice or a bill when a fine is due?

A. No! It is up to the defendant to keep track of when a fine is due.

Q. If I got a ticket for driving without insurance, do I need to get the car insured before I appear in court?

A. No. A driving without insurance citation ( Vehicle Code section 16028) can be cleared with or without showing valid insurance - In fact - getting insurance after you receive the ticket may not help you at all.

If you did have insurance at the time of the ticket, but did not have proof when you received the ticket, your fines may be reduced if you bring it to court with you - but technically, if you did not have proof of insurance when you got the ticket, you are guilty even if you did have insurance. This due to the fact that failing to have proof of insurance while you are driving is enough to violate the law by itself.

Q. Can a Driver Get Insurance If They Do Not Own a Car?

A. Yes! It is the act of driving that is covered by insurance, not really the car or vehicle. People call it car insurance, or auto insurance, but really, it is auto related liability insurance that will pay for damage caused by your negligence while driving. Contact an insurance agent to determine what type of insurance coverage is available for a non owner driver.

If you got a ticket for driving without insurance, it is really a ticket for not having proof of insurance coverage with you while driving ( Veh. Code 16028). If you show the court you had insurance at the time, but just did not have proof with you, the court may dismiss a Veh. Code 16028 violation. If you have proof of insurance that is valid AFTER the traffic ticket was issued, the bail may be reduced, but it varies from court to court. If you do not have insurance at all, you can resolve the case by paying the full fine on time.

Q. I received a letter saying that my license is suspended but I never had a license. What is going on?

A license, technically, is a privilege, not a card. A drivers license is permission to drive from the government, and a drivers license card is proof that you have permission. The government can take away your permission to drive even if you never had a card. When this happens, it generally means that there is a record in the DMV files that says "do not give this person permission to drive if they ask for it".

The suspension letter, typically a VC 40509.5 hold letter is just notice of the action. Usually, these suspension letters are sent to everyone who misses a court date, regardless of whether or not they have a drivers license card, or if they live in another state. Most states will honor a suspension from another state, even if the driver never had a license card in the suspending state.

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