The Drive to Jail: Why States Should Decriminalize Minor Traffic Offenses and Stop Using Bench Warrants to Enforce Traffic Laws


17 states classify minor traffic offenses as a misdemeanor, which may result in someone landing in jail, on probation, or with further criminal sanctions. 

Minor traffic offenses should not be considered crimes. Yet, in 17 states, these minor violations are considered misdemeanors that could lead to immediate arrest and jail time for things like speeding, a cracked windshield, or driving with an expired registration. While the majority of states have reclassified most minor traffic offenses as civil offenses, people still face jail time for nonpayment because many jurisdictions use bench warrants to enforce payment of civil traffic fines. Bench warrants direct law enforcement agents to take someone into custody to enforce civil violations. This report calls for the decriminalization of minor traffic offenses and ending the use of bench warrants as an enforcement tool for people unable to pay their fines and fees or who miss a hearing in a fine-only case. The report also includes a case study of Nevada, which successfully decriminalized traffic in 2023 with bipartisan support. You can read the full text here.

Key Findings

  • Criminal charges, including those from minor traffic offenses, can lead to additional fees such as criminal administrative fees, bench warrant fees, arrest and booking fees, and prosecution fees.
  • States have alternatives to bench warrants, such as the garnishment of tax returns, placing liens on property, or sending payments to collections.
  • In January 2023, Nevada became the latest state to decriminalize most minor traffic offenses.
  • A study by the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, found 83 percent of open warrants were unrelated to public safety.


  • Decriminalize minor traffic offenses.
  • End the use of bench warrants to enforce traffic fines and fees.
  • Preemptively address a person’s ability to pay traffic fines and fees.
  • Create actionable no-cost payment plans.
  • Provide non-financial sanctions as an alternative to fines and fees.

Read and download the full report here.

Carly A. Gartenberg
Fines and Fees Justice Center
November 2023