NMA E-Newsletter #130: It’s A Fee, Not A Fine

We don’t get the opportunity to write much about Montana. Big Sky Country has breathtaking vistas that make driving through the state a truly memorable experience. Montana’s prohibition of the use of red-light and highway speed cameras is an added benefit.

A recent law enforcement operation conducted by the Great Falls Police Department and Montana Highway Patrol has made the driving experience even more memorable – and expensive – for some motorists.

Highway sting operations are getting more creative as the need to bolster city finances gets stronger. A couple of years ago, Pasadena, California police set up a decoy school bus on a busy multi-lane highway, banking (literally) on passing drivers being confused about whether to stop for a yellow bus parked in an outside lane, nowhere near a crosswalk or intersection.

Two police cadets repeatedly walked on and off the bus as its red lights were flashing. Pasadena PD tagged over 150 motorists with $500 tickets for passing the bus.

The citations were later dismissed because the school bus law pertained to the loading or unloading of schoolchildren, not young adults.

The scheme in Great Falls, Montana involved railroad crossings. One day in early June, police officers rode along with engineers and conductors in two engines that kept going back and forth over city RR crossings, constantly triggering blinking warning signals.

As some motorists crossed the tracks (after the train had passed, but the crossing lights were flashing) they were pulled over by police or troopers and given tickets. The trains were then repositioned to catch the next batch of drivers.

All told, over 100 tickets were issued that one day. Those who were issued citations were told that, for an additional $85 fee, they could opt for deferred prosecution. This meant that the violation would stay on their record during a three month probationary period and then be wiped off if no more violations were received.

As the prosecutors expected, many ticket recipients jumped at the deal, their enthusiasm to contest the charges weakened by the prospect of having their driving records cleared by paying what amounted to a legal bribe.

This practice; charging “fees” to make points go away, is not unique to Montana communities, it is commonplace across the land.

Some jurisdictions are happy to just take your money, others add insult to injury and require attendance at traffic school classes.

The important thing to remember is that this whole enterprise is all about safety and isn’t tainted in the least by public agency greed or larceny (and the moon is really made out of cheese).

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