Thursday, October 6, 2011
Talk about a stacked deck of cards
If you feel like you unfairly received a speeding ticket recently, welcome to the new way city and state governments meet their budgets.
Fearful of enraging voters with a tax increase, city councilmen and state legislators are increasingly turning to various fines to pay the bills.
This puts pressure on police to issue tickets, making them tax collectors with badges rather than neutral enforcers of the law.
Imagine if our judges got a bonus every time they found someone guilty! Unfortunately, both the salaries of the judges and the police come increasingly from the fines they issue. This is not an ideal situation.
The increasing number and size of fines may fill the government coffers, but it creates huge costs for our citizens above and beyond the fine itself. Speeding tickets cause insurance rates to rise. This is money that leaves the state and damages our economy.
It has long been known that small counties will set up “speed traps” to raise money for their local governments. This is one reason the Legislature won’t let sheriffs use speed guns.
Now the state has jumped into the action, by levying “special assessments” on top of speeding tickets. For instance, every time a driver gets a traffic ticket, they must pay $51 to the state to fund such programs as the Law Enforcement Officers and Fire Fighters Death Benefits Trust Fund, the Law Enforcement Officers Training Fund, the Drug Court Fund, the State Court Education Fund, the State Prosecutor Education Fund, the Mississippi Leadership Council on Aging Fund, the Driver Training Penalty Assessment Fund, the Spinal Cord and Head Injury Trust Fund, the Emergency Medical Services Operating Fund, and the Crisis Intervention Mental Health Fund.
One group receiving special traffic ticket assessment money is the State Prosecutor Compensation Fund for the purpose of providing additional compensation for legal assistants to district attorneys.
Talk about a stacked deck of cards! The prosecutors are getting paid based on how many guilty pleas they get.
These perverse incentives are bad enough for traffic tickets which can cost drivers thousands in extra insurance. It’s far worse with DUI laws, which can destroy a person’s life. Studies have shown at least 20 percent of those arrested for DUI are under the legal limit.
The Mississippi law is so screwy that even if you are under the legal limit, you can still be arrested and convicted if the police officer thinks you are “under the influence.” The police and judges have a huge amount of discretion. Remember now, these arrests provide the money to pay their salaries.
There were more than 33,000 DUI fines last year at $1,000 a pop and “special assessments” of $178. That’s $40 million generated. Big business for government.
Aside from the DUI fine itself, Mississippians end up shelling out $15,000 in legal fees and extra car insurance. Sometimes a DUI will lead to loss of a job or inability to get a job.
Looking at the math: If 20 percent of the DUI arrests are false, that’s about 6,600 innocent Mississippians each year who lose approximately $15,000. That’s a $100 million dollar cost to our state every year.
So the local government raises about $40 million each year, but at a cost of $100 million to those falsely arrested. That’s not a good deal.
The problem is compounded by special DUI units that get grants and funding based on how many DUI arrests they make. Do you think these DUI enforcers feel some pressure to meet arrest quotas? You bet. They can’t just show up and report they observed no drunks swerving down the road. So they stake out restaurants and arrest citizens with no more probable cause than being out at night.
I wrote about this several weeks ago and was inundated with calls from people with stories of false arrest. “The police are out of control,” was the common refrain.
Ricky Fraiser of McComb was one such call. Retired now, Ricky used to be in charge of boating DUI training in the state. He was very critical of the system. “It ruins a lot of people’s lives. It’s just not right,” Ricky told me. “The police should be public servants, not the Gestapo. They should be doing what’s right. Instead they just want to arrest someone. I know what they’re doing is not fair. It’s a horror story.”
This reminds me a lot of our environmental laws. Everybody’s for a clean environment, so the political momentum gets carried away and the next thing you know we have a bunch of loopy, over-the-top environmental laws.
Same thing here. Who in their right mind is not against drunk driving? But in the process of accomplishing this good, the system has turned into an unfair, unconstitutional, money-making machine for government.
Yes, police the roads for erratic drivers who may be drunk. But don’t routinely breathilyze drivers for failing to use a turn signal or for pulling out of a bar. Our Constitution requires probable cause.
I propose two simple fixes: Restore impartiality by having all traffic and DUI fines go into the state general fund. Allow a blood alcohol level under .08 to be proof of innocence.
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