By James Baxter, NMA President
Fighting a traffic ticket isn’t fun, at least for most people. You’re playing in an arena where the other side has the home field advantage, makes all the rules, owns the referees, and virtually operates without meaningful oversight. No wonder only a tiny percentage of ticket recipients seriously set out to challenge the charges lodged against them. Still, the justice system’s hackles are up and it senses the need to protect its prerogatives (and its cash flow).
Despite the small cadre of often ill equipped, poorly prepared, and over-matched traffic ticket defendants, the courts feel threatened and they are fighting back.
Traditionally the courts have relied on obscure rules, byzantine procedures, inconsistency from court to court and system to system, deliberately unhelpful employees, and insider collusion to keep the riff raff at bay. Not good enough anymore; the unwashed masses, in the form of pro-se defendants, keep cluttering up the courtrooms and threatening the vacation plans of the “keepers of the law.” The new weapon of choice; price the slugs out of the system. Make it too expensive for the average person to even consider fighting a ticket, and woe be to thee who loses his or her challenge.
Individual judges have employed economic roadblocks and confiscatory penalties for years, but the practice wasn’t systematic. That’s beginning to change.
Massachusetts started the ball rolling on a grand scale by charging every traffic ticket defendant $25, non refundable, regardless of guilt or innocence, just to get a hearing in front of a dubiously qualified judge. Upon failing at that level and desiring a more legitimate trial, with some semblence of rules, the erstwhile defendant must cough up another $50, again, non refundable, for his date in court.
Just recently, the Indiana Legislature, under the guise of corraling a rogue judge who was slapping major fines on defendants because they had the audacity to use up his valuable time, passed a law that systematically increases the fines of ticket defendants who make a point of challenging the traffic ticket industry in court. These people are the thin line that keep the system half way honest and the legislature (with courthouse boosters) has decided to throttle them with additional fines in excess of $500! Just watch this trend grow.
The passing of hundreds of arcane traffic laws every year, increasing fines to the point that they are challenging car and mortgage payments, making police officers revenue generators, and “Public Private Partnerships” like the combination of local governments and ticket camera merchants are creating a growing mass of otherwise passive and apathetic citizens who want to resist the egregious use of the police power to steal their money. Where do they think they can get relief? The courts! Fat chance that. But hope springs eternal.
Voting is a right. Many decades ago governments used poll taxes to price minorities out of the voting booth. These people were being denied their right to vote through the government sanctioned use of financial penalties. They weren’t called that but that was what they were. The courts eventually admitted the obvious and prohibited this practice.
Due process is a right. Currently the government uses fees, penalties, fines, and a host of non-financial strategies to deny due process to the average citizen who wants to challenge a traffic ticket. The techniques are not always overt, but they serve the purpose of discouraging, if not making it impossible to fight a ticket. But here’s the rub, unlike the poll tax, traffic ticket revenue is the mothers milk of state and local court systems. Will they ever willingly pull free of the traffic ticket teat? I fear not.