NMA E-Newsletter #324: Court Innovations Will Create More Fergusons

Editor’s Note: Last week’s newsletter described the Court Innovations system, an online interface that lets ticket recipients plea bargain remotely without having to show up in court. Sounds convenient, but it really amounts to a way for the courts to discourage appeals and to expedite the payment process. A member from Michigan, where this system was developed and is in use, weighed in with some insightful comments that we would like to share with you.

For a local government, the ideal outcome is one in which the motorist is automatically guilty as soon as the cop car’s red lights come on or the camera flashes. The government’s goal is to deny all access to a fair court and make conviction as cheap and certain as possible. This goal is behind every proposed change to court procedure.

A large number of ticket challenges and a large number of “deals” are a sure sign of a revenue-driven ticket machine. These corrupt institutions should be exterminated, not automated. Complaints of a clogged court docket always precede attempts to diminish access to the courts—or creation of kangaroo courts where citizens are always guilty. The solution is to keep the cases from being made at all, not to label them “trivial” and undeserving of justice. Penalties of many hundreds of dollars and loss of mobility and livelihood are not trivial.

The purveyors of Court Innovations are nothing more than profiteers feeding off of the traffic justice system, like the collection agencies that profit from the Driver Responsibility Act or the ticket camera operators that profit from deliberately mistimed traffic lights.

Many legal experts object to over-criminalization: too many laws making too many violators. That is a serious problem, but many experts are not sensitive enough to the downside of decriminalization. This is the well-established trend by which traffic violations became civil offenses in most states, having originally been criminal. Decriminalization sounds nice, but in practice it means the accused enjoys fewer rights. As a lawyer friend puts it, “You’ll get due process, but not much process is due.”

Michigan is a bit unusual in allowing court trials for all traffic offenses. This acts as a brake on policing for profit, and we’ll be in real trouble if it’s ever denied. The goal of the city governments will always be to find the road user guilty, compel speedy payment, and to discourage challenges and appeals. Automating plea deals is the first step toward loss of rights.

If the Court Innovations system catches on, many cities in Michigan, and around the country, will appear a lot closer to Ferguson, Missouri, than they look on the map.

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