You have the right to a public defender if:
- You are charged with an offense that could result in jail time, and
- You have a low income.
Parking tickets and other minor traffic offenses are not punishable by jail time. At the beginning of court, the judge should explain if the traffic violation could result in jail time. The judge should also tell you if you need a lawyer.
Tell the judge that you cannot afford to hire a lawyer. The judge may then ask you questions about your employment, expenses, and assets (money in the bank, home, car, etc.). The judge may also ask you to fill out a form that shows how much money you owe, how much you earn, or how much you have in the bank.
Minor traffic offenses
Many traffic offenses are “petty” offenses, which is the lowest level misdemeanor. Petty offenses can only result in a fine and there is no right to a public defender. If you don’t qualify for a public defender, you still have the right to hire your own lawyer, or you can represent yourself.
Quasi-criminal and criminal traffic offenses
Since traffic law is part of criminal law, you’re entitled to some basic, constitutional rights. The constitution gives you the right to a lawyer in criminal cases. The US Supreme Court has found this to require a free lawyer in any case where you might be sentenced to jail time. It’s the possibility of jail that triggers your right to a free lawyer. Offenses with possible jail time are called "criminal" or "quasi-criminal."
Some traffic offenses are considered misdemeanors and categorized as Class A, B, or C. All of these misdemeanors carry the possibility of jail time and a fine. Class A misdemeanors can result in up to 364 days of jail time. Class B misdemeanors can result in up to six months jail time. And Class C misdemeanors can result in up to 30 days jail time. The penalties increase as you go from Class C to A. Some examples are:
- Driving under the influence (DUIs)–Class A
- Driving 40 miles per hour over the speed limit–Class A
- Reckless driving and drag racing–Class A
- Driving on a revoked or suspended license–Class A
- Three traffic offenses within one year–Class C
- Driving 30 miles per hour over the posted speed limit–Class B
- Leaving the scene of an accident–Class A
If you have three traffic offenses within one year, this could result in jail time and a fine. This means that each traffic ticket combines with each new traffic ticket on your traffic record. Once you reach the third offense within the same year you could be sentenced to jail on a Class C misdemeanor.