Highway Robbery

Everything is always decided for reasons other than the real merits of the case.  – John Maynard Keynes


Minnesota DWI Center/ Creative Commons

Recently, I had the pleasure of sitting through a day and a night in traffic court. Traffic court today seems to be more about municipal finance than about ensuring safety on the road.  I suspect that the recently passed tax overhaul is only going to make this worse. The elimination of the state and local tax deduction will pressure municipalities to hold or cut taxes while trying to maintain services.  Drive carefully.

The first time I went to court was to fight a parking ticket. The ticket was uncalled for; I’ll spare you the details. Suffice to say, I had a good case so off to court I went. Huge mistake.

I arrived at the county traffic court to find that I had to wait in line to get into the building. It took two plus hours before I saw the inside of the courtroom. What I found when I got inside was a plea bargaining mill. If you truly believe in your case, you can schedule a trial for a future date, take another day from work, waste another 5 hours, if you’re lucky and aren’t forced into an adjournment. Most people take the plea, especially if the plea comes without points on their record. Insurance surcharges for three years far exceed the plea amount. That’s how they get you.

When my turn came, I was offered a small fine reduction. I began to make my case, but the prosecutor stopped me in my tracks and said “OK, we’ll schedule a trial date”. I asked: “When?”. The response: “Sometime in the next six months”.  I said something like, “This is a waste of my time. Even though I think I’m innocent, I’ll take the deal”. Despite the fact that this is what they are relying on, the prosecutor looked annoyed and said “Don’t let the judge hear you say that when you go in front of him”. I took his advice.

My second go round was for a moving violation. It occurred in a local village court. Another plea mill, just at night and with nicer court employees. I was amused to hear one guy say almost exactly what I had in the county court, but he said it to the judge. He said that he thought he wasn’t guilty, but he didn’t want to waste the time. The judge told him that if he felt that way she didn’t think he should deprive himself of a trial. She sounded sincere.  He took the plea bargain anyway after repeating that it was a waste of his time.

The going rate is $250 for a moving violation, if you have a clean record. You get your violation reduced to a parking ticket and they get money in the coffers. Fifty of those a court session times fifty court sessions a year is $625,000. The take is much higher on the county level. They had 4 or 5 prosecutors bargaining simultaneously in open court.

Unfortunately, there is a huge incentive for municipalities to have their cops hand out a lot of questionable moving violations. They make it (barely) palatable to pay a large fine by not affecting your insurance rates while making it inconvenient and problematic to fight. It’s the cop’s word against yours and it’s a judicial trial. Maybe there’s a positive effect on road safety, but it seems more like a foolproof way to raise revenue.

I feel like I can’t run to the store where I’m living without seeing someone pulled over. Be careful out there: It’s only going to get worse.

This entry was posted in Governance, Municipal Finance, Municipalities. Bookmark the permalink.

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