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What is a Summary Offense?

Nicole Madison
Updated May 16, 2024
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In most jurisdictions, a summary offense is a minor type of legal offense. The exact definition of this offense may differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but most places reserve these types of charges for minor types of legal violations, such as public nudity, traffic violations and some forms of harassment. In fact, many jurisdictions consider these offenses less serious than misdemeanors. In most cases, these minor offenses can be handled without a trial by jury and without securing an indictment against the accused party.

Summary offenses are basically minor violations that do not require a person to have the full trial typical of most criminal offenses. Essentially, this type of offense means a person has broken the law, but his crime may not be considered as serious as others. This does not mean, however, that a person can commit a summary offense without expecting any punishment. Depending on the particular violation, a person may face driver's license suspension, fines, community service, probation, and even jail time after being convicted of such an offense.

The types of charges that are considered summary offenses may vary from place to place. In many cases, however, traffic violations such as speeding or driving without a valid license are considered offenses of this kind. Some jurisdictions also consider drunk driving a type of summary violation.

Some other examples of summary offenses include such violations as public nudity and public drunkenness. A person may also be charged with a summary offense for disorderly conduct in public, and in some places, underage drinking. Some types of harassment may also be considered these types of offenses in some jurisdictions, as may minor cases of retail theft.

A person accused of a summary offense may feel tempted to plead guilty to the violation, and this temptation may be due to the fact that these offenses are normally viewed as minor. Many legal experts recommend against pleading guilty without careful forethought, however, as a person who pleads guilty to this type of violation may face lasting consequences. For example, depending on the violation and the jurisdiction in question, a summary offense may result in a criminal record. Even when the offense is a traffic violation, a conviction could have lasting effects. For instance, a person convicted of a traffic violation may have adverse entries added to his driving record, experience difficulty in getting jobs for which a clear driving record is important, and even face higher car insurance rates.

MyLawQuestions is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Nicole Madison
By Nicole Madison , Writer
Nicole Madison's love for learning inspires her work as a MyLawQuestions writer, where she focuses on topics like homeschooling, parenting, health, science, and business. Her passion for knowledge is evident in the well-researched and informative articles she authors. As a mother of four, Nicole balances work with quality family time activities such as reading, camping, and beach trips.

Discussion Comments

By Izzy78 — On Aug 14, 2011

Many judges get angry at people who plead not guilty to a DUI just to try and get get lucky and not be punished. It is not unusual for a judge who has harsh feelings towards these people to give them a harsher punishment just for trying to manipulate the law. But again, it all depends on the judge and his or her tendencies.

By Emilski — On Aug 13, 2011

@TreeMan - Many factors to consider when faced with a summary offense is firstly, what exactly the charge is, the likelihood of being found not guilty, the likely consequences of being found not guilty, the consequences if one pleads not guilty and is found guilty, and maybe most importantly the judge.

Whenever someone breaks the law it is never a bad idea to consult a lawyer, or maybe someone who knows the law well, to weigh all these factors. A lawyer may be able to tell the person what to expect from the judge and if he will punish them for pleading not guilty just to try and get off on the charge. One can never assume with the law and all factors must be considered in order to figure out the right course of action.

By titans62 — On Aug 12, 2011

@TreeMan - I say it depends on the charge and the judge. Legal experts are considered experts for a reason and advise clients and offenders on the best course of action for their individual cases. Depending on the circumstances of their case, the experts may not tell them to take the same course of action as in another case with a similar violation of the law. There are many factors to consider when trying to decide what to plead and this has a huge bearing on the individual who committed the violation.

By TreeMan — On Aug 11, 2011

A question I have concerning summary offenses is that if they are just minor violations of the law, then why do experts say that people should plead not guilty? If someone is arrested for underage consumption the judge may not like the fact they are pleading not guilty, to a charge that they probably will not win, and they could receive a harsher sentence.

Nicole Madison

Nicole Madison


Nicole Madison's love for learning inspires her work as a MyLawQuestions writer, where she focuses on topics like...
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