Tickets: Pay up or lawyer up?

By Karen Schwartz Posted : 07/08/2013

pros and cons of paying off tickets or fighting in courtImagine you ignored, or forgot, to pay a few minor traffic tickets. Now imagine the cops showing up at your workplace to haul you to jail after a warrant for your arrest was issued. No one wants that, but it could happen.

If you're like most people, you probably lead a fairly busy life. You may work part time or full time, have family and household responsibilities and an active social life. With all this multitasking, you may lose track of some of the things on your to-do list. And that may include forgetting about paying tickets that you've accumulated for minor traffic offenses. (See: "Ticket? Uh-Oh! Auto insurance rate increases for common traffic violations.")

Severe consequences for unpaid tickets

In certain jurisdictions in Texas, if you don't pay the tickets you've accumulated for minor traffic violations, a warrant for your arrest can be issued, says David M. White, an Abilene, Texas- based attorney. "A warrant for your arrest can be issued for an indefinite amount of time," says White, "and it will be outstanding until the person is arrested, self-surrenders to jail, or pays the fine and court costs and gets a release from the court."

What happens if there's a warrant for your arrest and you get pulled over for another minor traffic infraction?

If there's an actual arrest warrant out for you, you can definitely be arrested on the spot, White says. "There will probably be a cash bond for whatever amount is outstanding. You have to pay the full amount up front," says White. (See: "Points, tickets, traffic school and car insurance.")

The Great Texas Roundup

For the last seven years, Texas has instituted the "Great Texas Warrant Roundup" in more than 240 jurisdictions across the state. During phase one, the State of Texas mails out thousands of notices to citizens who have outstanding warrants for a variety of Class C offenses, including minor traffic violations. Citizens are given a two-week grace period to pay their fines; if the fines are not paid, they are placed under arrest.

People do get nervous about the "Great Texas Warrant Roundup," says George B. Dombart, a San Antonio attorney. "You shouldn't wait for things to get to that point. "People may have $2,000 to $3,000 in outstanding tickets that can be reined in and handled. You should always take care of your responsibilities, even if you want to fight the tickets," Dombart adds.

Authorities can even show up at your workplace to arrest you during the "Great Texas Warrant Roundup," attorney David M. White points out. "If there's an actual arrest warrant, they may try to find you," he notes.

Pay tickets or hire an attorney?

Of course, getting arrested for not paying your tickets for minor traffic offenses is an extreme example. If you've accumulated numerous tickets for minor violations, should you just pay those tickets or hire an attorney to get you off? (See: "Got a ticket? You could be paying for years.")

Attorney Dombart says that even though you may pay more money upfront to hire a lawyer, in the long run, it makes more sense to pay for an attorney rather than to pay for the tickets that you've accumulated. Typically, a ticket will not show up on your driving record until you pay the fine or are convicted in court. However, you won't be able to renew your license until you've paid the tickets and fines.

"It may cost you $400 for an attorney," Dombart says, "but because that ticket does not go on your record, you may save money down the road. And your insurance company won't know you had a ticket because it won't go on your record," he adds. "If you go to court and you pay your tickets, you may see your auto insurance rates increase, and that may cost you more than if you get an attorney."

If you're uncertain about whether to hire an attorney or pay the tickets and late fees, consider getting auto insurance quotes, either from your agent or online, that reflect the additional tickets.

The cost of legal representation can vary widely, depending on where you live and your case. The Ticket Clinic, a firm doing business in Florida and California, typically charges $150 to $250, while some may levy a flat fee of $500.In metropolitan areas where there may be competing lawyers specializing in traffic court cases, you may pay approximately $75.

If you decide to lawyer up, here are some questions to ask:

  • Do you charge by the hour or a flat fee?
  • What is your rate?
  • What does the rate cover? Not cover?
  • How and when do you expect payment?

"I can usually work these things out so that these minor tickets don't go on a person's record," Dombart says. "Also, in most cases you don't have to go to court, so you save time."

As to how often people get reduced penalties, Dombart says it's on a case-by-case basis.

"A lot of times, we'll work out a plea bargain, and a minor violation will be dropped as long as the person doesn't receive another violation within a certain period of time," he says.

Pay the fines

Oak Park, Ill.- based State Farm Insurance agent Tim Brown says that paying the fines associated with any minor traffic offenses is often the best way to go.

"You did break the law, and if you broke the law, you did the crime and you should do the time," he says. If you have a lot of tickets, you can take a driving course, which in some cases may help erase points from your license," he says.

After all, Brown adds, "What can an attorney do? Nowadays, they have cameras everywhere that can see what you did."

Auto insurance companies can check your driving record at any time; the most common times are:

  • When you initially apply for coverage
  • When you request a change to your policy (add/remove drivers, change coverage, etc.)
  • When you add a vehicle to your policy or change the covered vehicle
  • When your policy comes up for renewal
  • Every two renewal cycles

Brown notes that if a driver has a few minor violations within a year, with most insurance companies, it will not make a difference in a driver's rates; on the other hand, he says, depending on the individual case, "a violation is a violation and accumulating several minor traffic violations within a year's time could affect your rate by 25 to 50 percent."

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