NMA Reboot: Ticket Surcharges are Punitive and Counterproductive

This weekly post features recent news stories that highlight and update themes previously covered throughout NMA E-Newsletters and Alerts.

Editor’s Note: The LA Times just ran this editorial decrying the excessive surcharges added to ordinary traffic tickets. The Times points out that surcharges make up about 80 percent of the total ticket cost, so a $100 traffic citation ends up costing $500. The editorial also points that traffic ticket revenue has been declining in California since many drivers simply can’t pay and end up losing their licenses or going to jail, further adding to their economic hardship. We’re glad the Times has shone a light on this punitive, destructive practice, but we wish they would have addressed it years ago, as we did in this 2010 cover story from our member magazine, Driving Freedoms


The Anatomy of a Traffic Ticket

I used to be apathetic about my phone bill. Sure, initially I would flip to page 2 (or 3 or 4) of the bill, where a slew of surcharges I really didn’t understand would be itemized in cryptic terms. I would get frustrated, but that wore off over time and I simply stopped looking past the front of the bill, where the total amount due was posted.

That obfuscation pales in comparison to today’s traffic tickets. The NMA has always encouraged ticket recipients to actively fight those citations to not only defend their individual rights, but to keep the traffic court system honest. Here, we will give you another reason: to contest taxation without representation.

Make no mistake about it, traffic tickets are rife with surcharges, fees, and contributions to various funds. The destinations of these monetary “gotchas” typically have little to do with traffic safety and everything to do with the financial support of the court infrastructure.

Even fair traffic court judges can’t help but be influenced to some degree by the knowledge that the collection of more and higher value traffic tickets help support the system they work within. The traffic justice system has built-in conflicts of interest.

I will give credit where credit is due. Cassandra Evanas wrote an excellent piece (“Sneaky Hidden Traffic Fees: How States are Gouging Citizens”) for DivineCaroline.com that made me dig deeper into the story. As Ms. Evanas did, I will use examples of California traffic tickets to illustrate the pervasiveness of motorists being hit with extraneous fees unrelated to the traffic violations they’ve been charged with.

Most California members are aware of the e-mail alerts sent out by the NMA in recent weeks about revenue-generating schemes being proposed by the governor’s office to help the struggling state out of a financial hole. One of the more prominent ideas still being kicked around is to install speed sensors on 500 existing red-light cameras at high volume intersections around the state, with the prediction that by having those ticket cameras do double-duty, the state will be able to rake in an additional $338 million of traffic fines each year.

While California provides good examples of ticket surcharge abuse, make no mistake that all state governments are scratching for sources of income, and load their traffic tickets with similar fees and penalties.

In addition to a series of fees that get tacked on to each traffic citation, California includes a cost category simply labelled “Penalty Assessment.” It is worth drilling down into what that penalty assessment really consists of, since it is a 220% cost assigned over and above the base traffic fine.

The Superior Court of California, County of Sacramento details the Penalty Assessment (ticket overhead) as follows:

  • 70% State Trial Court Trust Fund
  • 30% County General Fund
  • 20% County Courthouse Construction Fund
  • 25% County Jail Construction Fund
  • 5% County Automated Fingerprint Fund
  • 20% Maddy Emergency Medical Fund (State/County split)
  • 30% State Court Facilities Construction Fund
  • 20% DNA ID Fund

For every $10 of base traffic fine in California, the Penalty Assessment automatically adds another $22. Then, of course, there are other fees and surcharges. An additional State Court Facilities Construction fee for immediate and critical needs is charged separately, as is a Night Court Fee, a DMV Fee, a Criminal Surcharge (how is that for an appropriate label?), a Criminal Conviction Assessment, and a Court Security Fee.

Two examples of how these extra costs inflate a simple traffic ticket are provided. The first is for the failure to stop at a red signal, and the second is for the failure to provide evidence of financial responsibility.

In Los Angeles County, the penalty for running a red light has increased from $271 less than eight years ago to the current $446. (L.A. County includes an unidentified $10 cost on top of the “standard” $436 state fine shown below.) The court may also include additional assessments due to priors or driving record points, and can charge an additional $56 for traffic school, pushing the total penalty over $500.

The second example illustrates the penalty for not being able to produce proof of insurance at the request of an officer. While this penalty can sometimes be reduced by providing an insurance card after-the-fact, there is a basic disconnect when the system quadruples a $200 fine to cover other costs, especially when many drivers who receive this ticket are struggling to pay for their insurance.

One of the important functions of a healthy democracy is to maintain a robust justice system, and citizens must play a role in financially supporting such a system. But the exorbitant charges being placed disproportionately on the backs of a small subset of that citizenship, drivers charged with traffic violations, are out of balance and punitive.

If a motorist has violated a law, then he should pay a fair penalty. One can argue that the base fines for the two offenses used here as examples are reasonable, but jacking up the penalty by a factor of four to cover extraneous overhead expenses of the judicial system is not.

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