Traffic laws are a nearly universal means of enforcing safety on roadways and among motorists. Breaking these laws usually results in a penalty. Penalties are typically assessed based on circumstantial details, and can run the gamut from a nominal fine to a court summons and criminal charges. Some jurisdictions will issue tickets for all offenses, the function of which is to assign blame and set a contestable penalty. Others will instead issue traffic summons for offenses, which compel recipients to appear in court to have guilt or innocence determined. Still others use both tickets and summons, depending on the offense.
Citations are given out by police on an almost constant basis in most places for offenses including speeding, illegal or reckless driving maneuvers, and driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Unless the officer elects to let the driver off with a warning, he usually writes a citation, or ticket, explaining the offense. Sometimes, these tickets are presented as statements of wrongdoing, which presume guilt and list a fixed penalty. In other places or under other circumstances, tickets can be written in the form of a summons.
A traffic summons, sometimes called a speeding summons if speeding was at issue, identifies the alleged offense, but requires a court appearance to adjudicate the driver’s guilt and ascertain an appropriate penalty. Most of the time, only moving violations are eligible for traffic summons. Parking infractions, hardware malfunctions like burned-out headlights, and any other traffic violation that does not involve actual driving usually only warrants a ticket, not a court date.
Tickets for moving violations that presume wrongdoing can almost always be challenged in court. The difference with a traffic summons is that a court appearance is required. Usually, the recipient of a straight ticket can simply elect to accept the accusation, pay the fine, and move on. The recipient of a summons does not have that option.
Requiring a court appearance necessarily requires more community resources than issuing straight tickets. As such, traffic summons are usually reserved for major traffic offenses. Offenses that could lead to criminal charges or long-term license revocation, such as driving under the influence, almost always require traffic summons because of the severity of the potential outcomes. Most justice systems require more than a single police officer’s judgment to limit or remove drivers’ rights.
There are different types of summons in different places. New York City traffic laws, for instance, mandate the issuance of traffic summons known as a “pink summons” for traffic offenses that could lead to criminal charges. Drivers receive pink summons at the moment of their apprehension, and the date and time of required court appearance is usually pre-printed on the ticket. As with all traffic summons, drivers are required to respond to a pink summons. Ignoring a summons can lead to steep penalties, including arrest and imprisonment in some cases.