On your ticket, the officer will have written down a date to come into traffic court to either plead your case for innocence or admit you are a terrible driver, pay a fine and leave. Never fear, traffic court is nothing to be afraid of as long as you're polite, complacent and cooperative. Show up on time. Even if you have a busted tail light, they can issue a warrant for your arrest if you don't show up for court.
Get in Line
Once you arrive, you'll most likely wait in line to be seen. The procedure varies from state to state, but often enough, everybody who got a ticket that week will be ushered into the court room at once, where you are seen by the judge in the order you sat down. The judge will call you one by one up to the front, ask what you'd like to do about it.
Your options are to admit to the infraction and pay the fine, or challenge the ticket. Usually, people admit to whatever it was that got them the ticket, but if you feel the need to contest the ticket for any reason, you may do so now. Be sure to have all of your evidence ready at this time. The court has many cases to hear and will not wait for you to gather things together.
Contesting the Ticket
If you decide that you shouldn't have gotten the ticket, the court will set a date for you to come in and plead your case. At that date, you will go before the magistrate with the ticketing officer and explain why you shouldn't have gotten the ticket. If you win, you don't have to pay the ticket, but if you lose, you must pay the ticket and court costs. Those costs can add up quickly.
What if I Can't Afford the Fine?
Lots of people can't afford the fine. That's why it's a punishment. However, a judge in a good mood will often grant you thirty days or more to pay the fine. In some municipalities, the judge has full authority over how long he gives you to pay. If you still can't afford it after your thirty days, you can even ask for another extension in some places. At some point, though, the judge will wonder why it is taking so long to pay the ticket. Additional court costs may begin to add up if you have to go back several times and ask for an extension.
Can I Go to Jail?
Yes. While traffic court is often a more laid back atmosphere than criminal court, it is still governed by rules of order and law. If you become argumentative, belligerent, or verbally abusive, the judge can hold you in contempt and have you put in jail for the day. Most municipalities will also offer jail time for traffic offenses if the fine is prohibitively expensive. Jails are almost universally overcrowded, though, so most judges will reserve this punishment for only the truly deserving. Failure to appear in court or pay the fine can result in a bench warrant for your arrest, but barring these actions, jail time punishments are few and far between.