Navigating Traffic Tickets and Traffic Offenses in Colorado Courts
While traffic tickets in and of themselves are relatively minor offenses, the process of navigating a traffic ticket in Colorado courts can be a bit more complex. In particular, legal authority governing what constitutes a traffic violation in Colorado comes from various sources. Similarly, the processes and procedures applicable to a defendant charged with a traffic violation will depend on what source of legal authority the offense stems from.
More specifically, the two most common sources of legal authority for traffic violations in Colorado are the Colorado Revised Statutes (“C.R.S”) and municipal ordinances. Colorado Revised statutes are state statutory law and are separate and distinct from municipal ordinances which are passed and adopted by local municipalities. In effect, state statutes apply everywhere in the state while municipal ordinances only apply in the municipality that adopted them, such as the City and County of Denver.
Despite state laws and municipal laws representing two different sources of authority, in Colorado both state statutes and most municipal ordinances governing traffic violations are based on the Model Traffic Code promulgated by the Colorado Department of Transportation. That is, while the governing source of authority might be different, for the most part there is a high degree of similarity between what constitutes a traffic violation under either state law or municipal law.
However, while most municipal traffic ordinances are modeled after state law, municipal traffic violations are subject to their own set of governing rules and procedures. Thus, the main variation between being charged with a traffic violation under state law or a municipal ordinance is jurisdictional; that is, the main difference is whether the rules applicable to state courts or whether the rules applicable to municipal courts will apply.
General Overview of Traffic Tickets and Traffic Offenses in Colorado Courts
In general, regardless of whether the governing legal authority is municipal code or state statutes, there are two levels of traffic violations: traffic infractions and traffic offenses. Traffic infractions are less serious than traffic offenses and do not carry the possibility of jail time. Traffic offenses, on the other hand, do carry the potential of jail time.
More specifically, traffic infractions are technically civil in nature and, thus, can carry only the potential of a fine and placing points on your driver’s license. Within the traffic infraction category, there are two sub-categories: Class A traffic infractions and Class B traffic infractions. See C.R.S. § 42-4-1701. Notably, because traffic infractions are civil and not criminal nature, there is no right to a jury trial. Instead, defendants only have the right to a hearing or trial in front of a magistrate or judge.
Class A traffic infractions are more serious than Class B infraction and can result in both a fine and points added to your license. The number of points that can be added to your license for a given traffic violation is codified at C.R.S. § 42-2-127. Examples of Class A infractions include speeding less than 25 miles per hour over the speed limit, improperly using a car pool lane, following too closely, and disobeying a traffic signal. See C.R.S. § 42-4-1701(3)(a)(I).
In contrast Class B traffic infractions are less serious and, while they may result in a fine, they do not result in points being added to your license. Examples of Class B infractions include altering, defacing, or otherwise interfering with a traffic signal; operating a motor vehicle without wearing a seatbelt or without any front seat passengers wearing a seatbelt; or having defective brake lights. See C.R.S. § 42-4-1701(3)(a)(I).
In contrast to traffic infractions, traffic offenses – which are more serious – carry the potential of fines, points added to your license, and jail time. Similar to traffic infractions, traffic offenses are also divided into two sub-categories: Class 1 traffic offenses and Class 2 traffic offenses. Class 1 traffic offenses are more serious than Class 2 traffic offenses and carry the potential of longer maximum sentences for jail time and fines. See C.R.S. § 42-4-1701(3)(a)(II). Notably, because there is the potential for jail time, a defendant charged with a traffic offense does have the right to a jury trial.
Examples of Class 1 traffic offenses include speed contests, more commonly known as drag-racing; careless driving that results in injury to another person; driving without insurance; and speeding more than 25 miles per hour over the speed limit through a construction zone. The maximum penalty for a conviction of a Class 1 traffic offense is a $1,000 fine, one year in jail, or both.
Examples of Class 2 offenses include speeding more than 25 miles over the speed limit; careless driving; reckless driving; engaging in a speed exhibition; or operating a vehicle with a radar jamming device. Maximum penalties for Class 2 traffic offenses include a $300 fine, 90 days in jail, or both.
Depending on whether the traffic violation is a violation of a municipal ordinance or of state law, different rules of procedure can apply. In particular, the following rules may apply depending on what court the defendant is in: Colorado Municipal Court Rules of Procedure (“C.M.C.R.”), Colorado Rules for County Court Traffic Violations Bureaus (“R.T.V.B.), Colorado Rules for Traffic Infractions (“C.R.T.I”), and Colorado Rules of Criminal Procedure (“Crim. P.”).
Traffic Violations in Colorado Municipal Courts
Where a traffic violation is charged as violation of a municipal ordinance, regardless of whether it is a traffic infraction or traffic offense, the presiding court will be a municipal court and, accordingly, the Colorado Municipal Court Rules of Procedure will apply.
Under the Colorado Municipal Court Rule of Procedure, the defendant will be arraigned on their first court appearance; that is, the defendant will be given information on their rights and asked to enter a plea of guilty or not guilty. Notably, however, courts will routinely grant a continuance of the arraignment so the defendant can seek counsel or for other good cause. See C.M.C.R. 210(a).
For arraignment in municipal court, the defendant may appear personally or through counsel. Accordingly, counsel may appear for the defendant if the defendant is unavailable. Similarly, a defendant may enter a plea of guilty or not guilty by counsel or by written motion without the defendant being present in court. See C.M.C.R. 210 & 211(a), (c).
Importantly, for traffic violations in municipal court a defendant may request discovery of the prosecution’s case file at any time after the complaint or summons has been filed with the court. Discovery is the legal term for requesting all information relevant to the case that is in the prosecution’s possession. Accordingly, a defendant may request discovery before being arraigned or before the first court appearance.
Requesting discovery may not be necessary for traffic violations where the defendant does not wish to contest the charges; however, if the defendant does want to contest the charges discovery will help to determine how strong the prosecution’s case is and obtaining discovery is an important step in preparing for trial or preparing to negotiate a better plea deal. Where a defendant does request discovery, it should be done by written or oral motion with the court and on the record. See C.M.C.R. 216.
For traffic offenses in municipal court, because there is the possibility of jail time, defendants have a right to a jury trial. However, where the right to a jury trial exits, in municipal court the defendant must specifically request one and pay the requisite jury fee in order to avoid waiving that right. The request must be made within 21 days after arraignment or entry of a plea and must be made in writing. If no jury trial request is made, the right is waived and the trial will be to the court. See C.M.C.R. 223.
Traffic Infractions in Colorado State Courts
Where a defendant has been charged with a traffic infraction under a state statute as opposed to a municipal ordinance, the defendant will be in state court, and most likely county court. Where only traffic infractions have been charged – that is, a traffic offense or other criminal offense has not also been charged – then the Colorado Rules for Traffic Infractions will apply. See C.R.T.I. 2.
Where the Colorado Rules for Traffic Infractions apply, the defendant has a variety of procedural options. In particular, the defendant can resolve the ticket without an appearance in court by going to the clerk of the presiding court, signing a waiver of rights and acknowledgement of guilt or liability and paying the fine amount. In some circumstances and depending on the county, the defendant may also be able to resolve the ticket by mailing it in or paying the fine online. See C.R.T.I. 6. See also R.T.V.B. 8.
Alternatively, if the defendant does not resolve the ticket beforehand, the defendant will have to appear in court on the appearance date indicated on the ticket and enter a plea. Notably, the defendant may appear either in-person or have counsel appear in place of the defendant. However, if the defendant is entering a guilty plea through counsel, it is within the discretion of the court whether to require the defendant to appear in-person for sentencing. If the defendant enters a not guilty plea, a hearing date will be set by the court. Notably, because a traffic infraction is a civil offense, a defendant is not entitled to a jury trial and the hearing will be in front of the court. See C.R.T.I. 7.
Unfortunately for traffic violations where the Colorado Rule of Traffic Infractions govern, a defendant is not entitled to discovery of the prosecution’s evidence until the day of the final hearing. Once at the final hearing, the defendant then may inspect the documents prepared by the officer which the officer intends to use in the presentation of evidence. Accordingly, one disadvantage of defending traffic infractions in state court is the lack of discovery a defendant is entitled to which, in turn, affects the defendant’s ability to prepare a thorough defense before the hearing. See C.R.T.I. 8.
If a traffic infraction does proceed to hearing, the format of the hearing is similar to hearings in small claims court where the Colorado Rules of Evidence do not apply and, accordingly, the presiding magistrate or judge has significant control over the procedure of the hearing and what evidence may be accepted into evidence. Additionally, witnesses may be subpoenaed by the defendant to testify or provide documents at the hearing. See C.R.T.I. 9, 11.
Ultimately, most traffic infraction hearings come down to opposing testimony between the police officer and the defendant. The violation of a traffic offense must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. However, whoever the court determines to be more credible will likely play a significant factor in determining whether the court rules in favor of the defendant or not. See C.R.T.I. 12.
Importantly, if the officer fails to appear at the final hearing or if the final hearing is not held within 6 months from the date the defendant entered a plea, then the pending traffic infraction charges will be dismissed. However, continuances of the final hearing may be granted on a showing of good cause by the officer, his supervisor, of the defendant. See C.R.T.I. 10, 15.
Traffic Offenses in Colorado State Courts
Where a traffic offense has been charged under a state statute, as opposed to a municipal ordinance, the defendant has been charged with a misdemeanor and, accordingly, faces potential jail time. In such circumstances the Colorado Rules of Criminal Procedure will apply.
Under the Colorado Rules of Criminal Procedure, traffic offenses will be prosecuted in county court unless there is also a felony offense charged, then all pending charges will be transferred to district court. Accordingly, the vast majority of traffic offenses are prosecuted and resolved in state county court. See Crim. P. 4.1.
For arraignment of traffic offenses that qualify as Class 1 misdemeanors, the defendant must show up in person to enter a plea unless the court, for good cause, allows a defendant to appear by counsel and enter a plea of not guilty. For a guilty plea, the defendant must appear in person. For arraignment of traffic offenses less serious than a class 1 misdemeanor, the court may generally permit the defendant to appear by counsel; however, where a plea of guilty is made it is within the discretion of the court whether or not to require the defendant to appear in person. See Crim. P. 10, 11(c).
Importantly, and unlike traffic offenses in municipal court, for traffic offenses in state court the defendant does not have to specifically request discovery in order to receive it. Instead, the prosecution has an automatic obligation to provide discovery within 21 days after the defendant’s first appearance in court. Further, the prosecution’s disclosure obligations are continuing through the progression of the case and any new information that is learned by the prosecution must be disclosed to the defendant. See Crim. P. 16(1)(b).
Where a defendant pleads not guilty and decides to take the case to trial, the defendant will be entitled to a jury trial of a maximum of 6 jurors but no fewer than 3. For misdemeanor traffic offenses a defendant’s right to a jury trial is automatically preserved; however, for traffic offenses that qualify as a petty offense the defendant must file a written request for a jury trial and pay the applicable jury fee within 21 days of entry of the not guilty plea. Notably, a defendant must be brought to trial within 6 months from the entry of a not guilty plea unless the defendant requests a continuance or otherwise fails to appear. See Crim. P. 23, 48.
© 2017 J.D. Porter, LLC. Author: Jordan Porter. Denver, Colorado.