Citation vs Charge: What’s the Difference?

Written by

John Cotton


Logan Miller

citation vs charge

Have you ever found yourself in a situation where a minor incident suddenly turned into a legal issue, leaving you confused and unsure about your rights and responsibilities?

Police citations and charges are legal terms often used interchangeably but have different meanings and legal consequences.

In this article, we will tackle in depth the differences between citation vs charge, what they are, and what they mean for you if you get one.

To give you an idea, here’s a brief comparison table:

Citation vs. Charge Comparison

Citation Charge
When do you get it? When a police officer has reason to suspect a person is guilty of an infraction or misdemeanor, such as breaking a traffic law, shoplifting, or indecent exposure. When the authorities have evidence or reason to believe someone has committed a crime
Contents 1. The details of the alleged misdemeanor, such as the time and location of the incident, along with the objects and other people concerned

2. The person’s name, address, and additional information

3. Name of the police officer who issued the citation

4. Name of the person whose appearance is required in a specific courtroom or program

5. Fines or penalty

6. Court date

A “charge sheet” detailing the offense for which you are being accused of, which includes information such as:

1. Information (name, identity, etc.) about the accused and the witnesses

2. Charges and specifications

3. Trial court date

Detailed Comparison of Citation vs. Charge

1. Citation issued meaning

The person responsible for giving citations in some states

Receiving a citation from a law enforcement officer means you have committed a misdemeanor. This type of criminal citation means that instead of directly going to jail, you will be given a ticket.

Misdemeanor citation only given when the offender commits a minor, nonviolent offense with no prison term involved—different misdemeanor crimes including traffic violations, theft, drug possession, and DUI without injuries.

  • For example, if you’re convicted of a misdemeanor, (leaving the scene of an accident, drug possession, shoplifting,  etc.) in Tennessee, you could get up to a $2,500 fine, a year in jail, or both.

Initially, if you receive a citation to appear in court, you must do so and plead your case. You have to go to court at the specific time and date written in your citation.

If you fail to go to court as requested, you may have to pay an increased fine, go to jail, or face other penalties.

Here’s a citation warrant in California with a highlighted citation date:

Here is a table of what laws to cite instead of arrest:

State What Types of Violations May Result in a Citation? Exceptions Presumption of Citation When are Citations Given? Who is Responsible for Giving Citations?
Alabama Traffic misdemeanors Offenses involving an accident resulting in injury or death impaired driving


Yes After arrest Law enforcement officers
Louisiana Illegal ownership of stolen property

Driving without a license in possession


Felony accusations with criminal history Driving without a license Before arrest Police officers
Michigan Misdemeanors with a maximum of 93 days imprisonment Domestic assault; violation of a protection order

Crimes subject to mandatory confinement or mandatory condition of pretrial release

No After arrest Police officers
Oregon Laws that permit felonies can be lowered to misdemeanors charges

Certain ordinances


Domestic disturbance (assault occurred between family, a person is in fear of serious bodily injury; a breach of a protection order or restraint) No Either Peace officers
Virginia Misdemeanor vehicle violations Impaired driving of commercial vehicles Yes After an arrest Law enforcement officers

2. Charge


Three primary categories of crimes according to criminal law are felony, misdemeanor, and infraction. If you committed a misdemeanor or an infraction, you will likely receive a citation.

It is different when you are charged with a felony. Criminal charges of this type will have more severe consequences than citations, often more than a year in jail.

Not only will court appearances be necessary, but there will be a trial, a grand jury, and witnesses who testify in front of the court.

You will receive a felony citation or charge if you have committed a more serious crime like arson, rape, murder, burglary, fraud, and domestic abuse.

It would lead to a physical arrest and detention, and you need to pay bail to be released. A felony charge can lead to the death penalty or life imprisonment in serious cases.

Here’s an example of an arrest charge:


What Should I Do?


When served with a citation

  1. You must appear in court.
  2. Read your legal rights.
  3. Hire a lawyer.
  4. Appear in your initial court trial, and then your sentencing.

Charged with felony

  1. Hire your lawyer.
  2. Understand the felony charges against you.
  3. Be sure that you have witnesses that are willing to defend you in court.
  4. You must attend all court hearings with your lawyer.
  5. You’ll have to remain in custody up to the arraignment when the court will decide on your bond.


Hopefully, you have gained more understanding about the topic of citation vs charge. It is important to note that it is a serious matter, whether you are given a citation or a charge.

Even if you ‘only’ committed a petty crime, it will affect your life. Consequences like paying huge fines and jail time can prevent you from working and caring for yourself and your family.

So, you must abide by the laws so that citations and charges don’t go on your record.

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