Receiving a traffic ticket for driving in a parking lot is rather uncommon, especially when you're using the parking lot as intended—for parking. However, drivers who use parking lots to avoid a red light, stop sign, or a traffic jam risk being cited for a traffic violation. A violation for avoiding a traffic signal by cutting through a parking lot is often called "rat-running" and can result in fines and traffic violation demerit points. This article outlines state laws that prohibit rat-running and some possible penalties for violations.
So what is rat-running exactly? An example would be a driver needing to turn right at a red light in heavy traffic. In this situation, pulling into an adjacent gas station just to drive through the parking lot and exit the other side would be considered rat-running. In other words, the driver avoids having to wait for the light to turn green by cutting the corner through the gas station.
Generally, rat-running statutes prohibit cutting across public or private property in an effort to avoid traffic or road signals. Most states prohibit rat-running, but each state defines the offense a little differently. Florida, for example, prohibits driving a vehicle from a roadway to another roadway to avoid obeying a traffic control device. Some state laws specify that this prohibition applies to driveways, private property, sidewalks, and the like.
With most traffic violations, it doesn't matter what the driver's intent was. For instance, a driver can get a speeding ticket even if he or she didn't know or didn't intend to exceed the speed limit. However, with some (but not all) rat-running laws, the driver's intent is important. Generally, a driver commits a rat-running violation only if he or she leaves the roadway for the purpose of avoiding a signal or traffic jam. So, if the driver cut through the parking lot to check the store hours, it technically would fit the definition of rat-running.
Defenses to rat-running tickets vary depending on the jurisdiction and circumstances of the violation. But, generally, certain vehicles are exempt from rat-running statutes, and drivers who weren't intending to avoid traffic or a traffic signal could have a viable defense.
Exceptions to rat-running laws. Many states, like New Jersey, permit emergency vehicles to cross private or public property to avoid traffic jams and road signals. Drivers are also permitted to rat-run when directed to by law enforcement. For example, an officer directing traffic after a collision may deem it necessary to divert traffic from the main roadway to ease congestion or for some other reason.
Innocent intent. Technically, a driver should be able to beat a rat-running ticket by convincing the judge that his or her intent was something other than avoiding a signal or traffic jam. For example, a driver might argue he entered the gas station to check prices but then pulled out after seeing gas was too expensive. Although these statutes generally require proof of the driver's intent, judges are sometimes skeptical of drivers' so-called innocent explanations.
Jurisdictional issues. In some situations, a driver can also argue the officer didn't have jurisdiction over the violation. Many traffic laws don't apply to private property such as driveways, private dirt roads, and parking lots. To ensure jurisdiction, most statutes prohibit leaving the roadway to avoid traffic signals, rather than prohibiting certain actions taken while on private property. For this reason, the language of the statute can be very important to defending a rat-running citation.
Camera tickets. Finally, defenses exist when the citation doesn't come from a police officer. Many states authorize the issuance of tickets for violations caught on traffic cameras. If a traffic camera catches a driver rat-running, law enforcement can mail a ticket to the vehicle's registered owner. The owner then has the opportunity to prove that he or she was not driving or is otherwise not guilty.
As a traffic violation, most rat-running tickets carry only fines (usually, of $50 to $200) and possibly traffic violation demerit points. However, some states classify rat-running as a misdemeanor, which generally means jail time is a possibility (though probably unlikely).