Why is a traffic ticket treated differently than a civil matter by the court?

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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Resolving a traffic ticket in court is handled differently than resolving a civil lawsuit because most traffic tickets are handled as criminal matters. The sentence in a criminal case can result in an order to pay a fine, a sentence of probation, or time in a jail. The sentence imposed in a criminal case is an obligation that a person has towards the “state” for violation of law; that is, it is a punishment for the act that was committed. The “state” could be a local township, municipality, city, county, state, or the federal government.

A civil matter typically results in an order awarding a money judgment to be paid by one party of a lawsuit to the other. The judgment is imposed to make the victim “whole” for the harm caused by the offender. A judgment in a civil matter does not include the imposition of a criminal sentence.

Thus the major difference is that in a criminal matter, a person who has violated a law can be ordered to forfeit his/her personal freedom since s/he has, in effect, caused a harm to the “state.” The “payment” to the “state” is ordered as punishment for an act that the offender did.

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