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You, an Officer & A Virginia Uniform Summons: What Not To Do

Posted by George L. Freeman | Jan 02, 2020

A Virginia Uniform Summons is a standard form that police officers, deputy sheriffs, state troopers, and other law enforcement officers issue in the Commonwealth of Virginia when they believe a traffic infraction or misdemeanor has been committed.  Typically, the alleged offense must have occurred in their presence, but there are exceptions.  When an officer issues a Virginia Uniform Summons, most commonly issued for traffic offenses, it is only valid if you sign it.  By signing the summons, you are not admitting your guilt, you are not admitting any wrongdoing, you are not even acknowledging that you are properly charged - all you are doing is affirming you have been given notice of the charge, whether it be a speeding ticket, a traffic misdemeanor, or other minor crime or offense.

Atwater v. City of Lago Vista, 532 U.S. 318 (2001), is a case which enforces why being given a Virginia Uniform Summons is a good thing.  Here's the story: Ms. Atwater was driving in Texas with her two children in her vehicle.  A police officer noticed that they were not wearing their seatbelts.  The penalty for not wearing a seatbelt in Texas was only a fine.  The officer, instead of issuing a summons (or ticket) to Ms. Atwater, arrested her!  He took her into custody, placed handcuffs on her, and drove her to jail.  All of this occurred in front of her children.  She spent an hour or so in jail before a judicial officer (magistrate) released her on bond.  She was arrested and jailed, though only for a couple of hours, for an offense that was punishable only as a fine!!!  She ultimately paid a penalty of $150.00.  Ms. Atwater sued the officer and the police department for violating her civil rights and her rights under the Fourth Amendment prohibiting unreasonable searches and seizure.  Her basic argument: it is not reasonable to arrest and temporarily jail a person for an offense that is only punishable with a fine.  The United States Supreme Court rejected her claim.  The Court stated that while the officer may have used poor judgment, it does not violate the Fourth Amendment to seize (arrest somebody) and bring them before a judge (or magistrate) if there is probable cause to believe they have broken the law - in this case, not wearing a seatbelt.

This is still the state of the law under our Constitution.  However, Virginia, and many other states, have statutes in place to prevent this type of incident from occurring.  The Virginia Traffic Code says that for traffic infractions and traffic misdemeanors (except for DUI) an officer shall take the name, address and license number of the driver and issue a Virginia Uniform Summons.  This process applies to petty criminal misdemeanors as well.  There are exceptions - the officer must arrest if: the offense is believed to be a felony; the officer believes the person will likely disregard the summons; or the person refuses to sign the summons.  If the person refuses to sign the summons, the traffic code states the officer shall promptly take him before a magistrate or other issuing authority having jurisdiction.  This means you must be arrested and taken into custody. 

Remember, signing the Virginia Uniform Summons is not an admission of any wrongdoing, or a waiver of any of your rights.  It is simply an acknowledgment that you have received the summons; the law will not permit a police officer to affirm that he gave you the summons - you must sign the document.  Otherwise, you will end up like Ms. Atwater - only, in your case, it will be your fault.  Sign the Summons, and avoid an unpleasant and unnecessary arrest.  If you won't sign the summons, the officer MUST arrest you!!!  The traffic code says that if an officer violates his duty under the code, it is misconduct in office subject to removal. 

When I was a prosecutor in Fairfax County, I had a case where a lady was charged with Running a Stop Sign.  Because she would not sign the summons, she was also arrested.  And because she resisted arrest, she was charged with Obstruction of Justice.  All of that over refusing to sign her name on a ticket.  Remember, you are innocent until proven otherwise in a court of law.  You can contest any ticket issued to you.  A judge, who is neutral, fair and impartial will decide your case.  A traffic lawyer can help you.  There is nothing to be gained from fighting with an officer, even one who is wrong, while you are helpless on the side of the road.  Do your fighting in the courtroom!

About the Author

George L. Freeman

I was born and raised in Fairfax County.  I graduated from Fairfax High School and then from Virginia Tech.  After spending a few years as a bail bondsman and court clerk, I attended the University of Baltimore, School of Law.  I graduated in 2010 with a Juris Doctor, manga cum laude. I spent 9 ...

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