An overgrown system

The reporter who called me seemed to have an exposé in mind. How could it be that so many people are found not guilty of traffic violations?

Police in Massachusetts write nearly a million tickets per year. That’s about $150 million for government and more than that for the insurance industry.

But hundreds of thousands of drivers beat their tickets and that worried the Lowell Sun reporter.

They didn’t escape a fine, but they kept the ticket off their record. A decade ago lawmakers noticed that a lot of drivers went to court and won. They decided to capture this untapped revenue stream. Now there’s a fee to plead not guilty and tell your story to a magistrate. There’s a bigger fee to tell it to a judge. If you don’t pay the fee you are automatically guilty and have to pay the fine instead. That makes each ticket guaranteed revenue for the state. Court appearances are only to decide how much you pay.

Do judges throw out too many tickets?

The analogy I gave the reporter, which he didn’t print, was this: If somebody wants to punch you three times, but only punches you twice, should you thank him for his generosity?

If the speed limit is 20 mph too low, but police only ticket for 10 over the limit, are they doing you a favor?

If politicians ask police to raise $200 million, but courts cut the revenue to $150 million, are you lucky?

If you get charged with a moving violation for not paying a parking ticket, is the magistrate being generous when he lets you off?

One of the tickets most drivers beat was driving with an expired registration. Usually that means the owner couldn’t renew due to unpaid parking tickets or other fines or fees. But an expired registration is a moving violation just like running a stop sign.

Judges consider it unfair to ticket people for driving while poor, and many will make the ticket go away if the driver pays what is owed. Same for driving with a suspended license when the real offense is not paying a reinstatement fee.

Buried in a pile of tickets for not paying money, and harassment tickets like speeding, is a core of real crimes. About 2% of those million tickets are for DUI and reckless driving.

There are still complaints about people being found not guilty of those. I discussed a different newspaper’s complaint a few years ago.

Is the glass half empty or half full? Reporters see the conviction rate as too small. I see the traffic ticket industry as too large.

The opinions expressed in this post belong to the author and do not necessarily represent those of the National Motorists Association or the NMA Foundation. This content is for informational purposes and is not intended as legal advice. No representations are made regarding the accuracy of this post or the included links.

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