Traffic Violations in Montana
Traffic violations in Montana are acts or behaviors that violate traffic laws. Typically, they occur due to road users' intentional or unintentional disregard of regulations governing road usage.
In Montana, traffic violations range from minor or civil offenses like "driving without a seat belt" to major or criminal ones like "hit and run". However, whether minor or major, traffic violations are treated seriously by the state courts, as they can put the lives and safety of other drivers and pedestrians at risk. (The Montana Traffic Records Coordinating Committee (TRCC) reported 240 fatalities in 2021.)
Generally, a traffic violation is considered civil/minor if it has a non-criminal element, i.e., state laws do not regard the offense as a crime. Some popular examples include disregarding a stop sign, running a red light, making an illegal turn, speeding, crossing the street illegally/jaywalking, or parking in the wrong place. The penalties for civil traffic violations usually include a fine, community service, driver rehabilitation points, and mandatory traffic school.
Meanwhile, a traffic violation is criminal (i.e., a felony or misdemeanor) when it has an aggravating element, such as death or property damage, or if the law labels it as such. Examples include drunk driving offenses, reckless driving, vehicular manslaughter, and repeat offenses. Criminal traffic violations often result in imprisonment and considerable fines. Other penalties may include the suspension or revocation of a driver's license, probation, home confinement, traffic courses, and vehicle impoundment.
Regardless of the legal penalties that a traffic offender may face in Montana, there are other consequences that result from a traffic violation. For example, the loss of insurance, higher insurance rates, job loss, and a permanent driving and criminal record.
Types of Traffic Violations in Montana
Besides classifying traffic violations as civil and criminal, traffic violations can also be classified as moving and non-moving violations in Montana. This classification is based on the motion of a vehicle at the time of an offense.
A moving violation occurs when a driver breaks a traffic law while their vehicle is moving. When compared to non-moving violations, moving violations are treated more seriously. This is because a moving violation has a higher risk of death and injury than a non-moving violation. Examples of moving violations include:
- Running a red light
- Failure to use turn signs
- Hit and run
- Driving while intoxicated (DWI)
- Texting while driving
- Making an improper turn
A non-moving violation, on the other hand, occurs when a stationary vehicle is found violating a traffic regulation. Typically, this violation stems from careless parking or malfunctioning vehicle equipment. Examples include:
- Parking in front of a fire hydrant
- Driving with an expired insurance card or registration
- Driving without a license
- Parking in a no-parking or restricted zone
However, a non-moving violation can also occur when a vehicle is moving. For example, driving without a seatbelt or driving with faulty vehicle equipment (e.g., broken headlights, taillights, or windshields). Unlike moving violations, non-moving violations do not trigger demerit points on a driver's license.
Montana Traffic Violation Code
The Montana Motor Vehicle Code, codified at Title 61 of the Montana Code Annotated, contains the state's traffic laws. These laws outline driving behaviors that constitute traffic violations in Montana and the associated penalties.
Montana Felony Traffic Violations
In every criminal justice system, felonies are considered the most serious criminal charges, and traffic felony violations are no exception. In Montana, a felony traffic violation is any offense committed by a motorist or pedestrian that can lead to a punishment of at least one year in jail. Examples include:
- Hit and run
- Driving under the influence
- Road racing
- Fleeing an accident scene
- Evading a police arrest
- Drag racing
Montana Traffic Misdemeanors
Montana traffic misdemeanors are less serious offenses that often result in a fine or a jail sentence of not more than a year. For most traffic misdemeanors, offenders are taken to custody and asked to pay a fine. However, because traffic misdemeanor convictions have lesser penalties than felony convictions, their implications are similarly less severe. For example, a person convicted of a traffic misdemeanor may be eligible to serve on a jury, practice their profession, and vote. Examples of traffic misdemeanors in Montana include:
- Failure to appear in court for a traffic violation
- Driving on an expired, suspended, or revoked license
- Driving without a license
- Reckless driving
Montana Traffic Infractions
Traffic infractions in Montana are non-criminal violations with no jail time. As such, offenders are liable to face minor penalties than those imposed for traffic misdemeanors and felonies. These penalties include fines, community service, license suspension, and probation.
The following are some traffic infractions in Montana:
- Illegally tinted windows
- Running a red light
- Parking violations
- Driving without seatbelt
- Texting and driving
Montana Traffic Violation Codes and Fines
The Montana traffic violation code determines the severity and penalties for any traffic offense committed in the state of Montana. For example, the fine amounts that an offender must pay.
A list of the fines and surcharges assessed for traffic violations in Montana can be found in the Supreme Court's recommended bond schedule. This schedule ensures a uniform fine penalty for traffic offenses across the state. Overall, an individual who commits an infraction, for example, speeding, will pay less than someone convicted of a serious offense, like a DUI (driving under the influence).
How to Pay a Traffic Violation Ticket in Montana
Unless the traffic violation ticket requests a compulsory court appearance, an offender can pay their ticket in person, via mail, or online, depending on the court.
- For online payments, most Montana courts allow offenders to pay their tickets remotely via CitePayUSA. A list of courts that accept online payments is available on the website. A citation or case number and date of birth will be required to access the payment system.
- For mail payments, an offender must send a check or money order to the court address listed on the ticket. Offenders using this payment method must write their citation number on the check or money order.
- For in-person payments, an offender must visit the court. It is crucial to call the court to inquire about the payment procedure and acceptable payment instruments.
Regardless of the payment option chosen, a ticket should be paid on or before the deadline. Failure to pay may lead to a late fee penalty and driver's license suspension. Generally, any offender who cannot pay before their due date should ask the court for a payment plan or one-time extension.
Traffic Violation Lookup in Montana
To look up traffic violations in Montana, members of the public can purchase a copy of their driver record online, in person, or by mail from the Motor Vehicles Division (MVD). They can also access other people's records.
For individuals: The MVD provides a driver history records service for persons who wish to retrieve their records or records belonging to someone else. Upon providing the requested information (e.g., a driver's license number) and paying a $7.87 fee, the record will be released to the requester. It is important to note that the record must be printed immediately, as it cannot be mailed to the requester or saved/copied from the electronic file.
For businesses: Businesses like trucking companies and insurance companies that look up driving violations in large volumes must register with the MVD. They can do this by emailing email@example.com or calling (406) 285-8280. After obtaining the login details, they can access the driver history records service website. Upon paying $7.87, the required information will be released.
People who want to look up traffic violations in person should complete the release of driving records (Form 34-0100), providing the driver's full name, date of birth, and license number. This costs $4.12, payable with a check or money order. The form and fee should be brought to the Motor Vehicle Division Office at:
Scott Hart Building
302 North Roberts
Helena, MT 59620
Mail requesters must complete the release of driving records (Form 34-0100) and send it to the MVD, together with a fee of $4.12 in check or money order.
The completed form and fee should be enclosed in a stamped, self-addressed envelope and mailed to the following address:
Motor Vehicle Division
P.O. Box 201430
Helena, MT 59620-1430.
There is an option to receive the requested record by Fax: (requesters will not need to send a self-addressed envelope). However, an additional $4.12 will be incurred.
How to Plead not Guilty to a Traffic Violation in Montana
Traffic offenders in Montana have the right to plead not guilty if they believe they are innocent of the charges. However, offenders are advised to have solid evidence to back their claim before entering the plea.
Generally, anyone who wishes to plead not guilty to a traffic violation in Montana must appear in court where the traffic ticket was issued on or before the payment deadline. This court appearance is called an arraignment. If unable to make this date, the individual is advised to call the court and reschedule.
At the arraignment, the offender can stand pro se or with a traffic lawyer. Regardless, the individual will have to inform the court of their intent to plead not guilty to the offense. Evidence and arguments will not be presented in this hearing. After entering the plea, the court will assign a return date for an official hearing, where evidence and arguments may be presented, and a ruling entered. This date, and any other date scheduled by the court, should be missed, or else the court may issue an arrest warrant or suspend the offender's license.
To ensure an offender returns to court, a bond might be taken out in their name. If an offender loses the case, the bond can be used to pay their fines.
What Happens if You Plead No Contest a Traffic Violation in Montana
Pleading no contest to a traffic violation in Montana means that the offender does not admit to a charge but accepts the penalty associated with it. Although pleading guilty and no contest have the same implications, an offender that pleads no contest does not take responsibility for their offense. Therefore, if a civil action emerges from the traffic violation case, an offender's no contest plea cannot be used against them as evidence.
How Long Do Traffic Violations Stay on Your Record?
According to the Montana Department of Justice, traffic violations in Montana remain on an offender's record for three years from the day of convictions. However, traffic convictions remain permanently on one's driving record.
Traffic violation records can affect a driver's license points, car insurance rates, and driving privileges. For instance, if a driver accrues 30 points in 3 years, the state will suspend their driver's license. Also, having a bad driving record (a record containing one or more traffic violations or accidents) can result in higher insurance rates and the revocation of driving privileges.
Can Traffic Violations Be Expunged/Sealed in Montana?
Yes, traffic violations can be expunged or sealed in Montana. However, to be eligible for such relief, the following criteria must be met:
- The offender must have fulfilled their misdemeanor sentence, including penalties, fines, and so forth.
- The offender must have completed the conditions of their sentence for at least five years before the petition for expungement. The longer the period has elapsed, the more likely the expungement will be successful.
- The offender must not have any new charges since serving their sentence.
- A petition must be filed in the district court by the offender, and it must satisfy the statutory requirements. For instance, if another person was harmed due to the offender's crime, they must be notified of the petition. As such, the offender may need the assistance of a lawyer.
If the court grants an expungement to the offender, all legal documents about the petitioner's traffic offense, including court records, will be erased. In other words, no record of the offender's arrest, charge, conviction, or punishment will exist. However, the court's expungement order does not apply to a person's driving record, only a criminal record.
What Happens if You Miss a Court Date for a Traffic Violation in Montana?
When an offender is scheduled to appear in court for a traffic violation in Montana, it is imperative they show up on the court date. Failure to appear may result in additional criminal charges and a bench warrant for one's arrest.
Furthermore, the court may order the defaulter (usually first-time defaulters) to pay additional fines and fees. The individual may also be asked to pay a higher bail or forfeit the bond placed to get out of jail. In extreme cases, an offender's ability to post bond will be revoked, and they will be required to remain in jail until the court resolves the case.