Others’ opinion: There’s no reason to let a traffic ticket turn into a financial crisis

Published 7:30 am Thursday, May 3, 2018

Star Tribune

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Getting a traffic ticket is never pleasant. But in Minnesota, a combination of harsh penalties can turn a bad day into a downward spiral far out of proportion to the offense. The Legislature has a chance to change that and should act.

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Of course, drivers should obey the traffic laws. But the failure to signal a lane change or exceeding the speed limit (not uncommon on Minnesota highways) can, because of high fines and surcharges, result in hundreds of dollars in penalties. That is painful for most drivers, but nearly impossible for some.

What many don’t know is that failure to pay those fines can result in a driver’s license suspension in as few as 60 days, according to state Rep. Nick Zerwas, R-Elk River. Such a system winds up penalizing drivers more for being poor than for the infraction itself, and that’s wrong.

No one is suggesting that lawbreakers get off scot-free. Government should be free to use any number of traditional means of collecting debt. But pulling a driver’s license is a heavy penalty that must be employed judiciously and in proportion to the transgression. Such a move can — and regularly does — cost drivers their job, further impeding their ability to pay their fines. Those who take a chance and get caught driving on a suspended license can face close to $400 in fines, along with other costs. Sometimes a warrant is issued for their arrest.

There is no reason for the state to turn a traffic ticket into a crisis that can reach far beyond the driver, particularly if he or she is the family provider.

“This needs to change,” Zerwas said. “What we’re doing here is not right. We’re pushing people into a debt trap.” Zerwas points to pilot programs in Minneapolis, St. Paul and several other cities that offer alternatives. His bill would not affect suspension for more serious offenses, such as drunken driving.

Minnesota is not the only state with such a broad approach to suspensions, but it is among a handful of states seeking a change. California last year prohibited the suspension of licenses for unpaid traffic fines. Officials there said that the practice did not aid the state in collecting unpaid fines and that it often plunged what might be otherwise law-abiding citizens into cycles of job loss and deeper poverty. Zerwas’ bill actually goes further, and gives those who have a suspended license the chance for reinstatement. “We could give 20,000 Minnesotans a chance to get back on the road legally,” he said. His proposal, together with a companion bill from state Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville, has drawn bipartisan support and rightly so. The point of traffic tickets is to deter bad behavior and make roads safer, not to serve as a profit center for government coffers.

Minnesota’s fines are already disproportionately high, the result of misguided efforts a decade ago to garner revenue for the judicial system during lean times. The recession is over, but somehow Minnesotans are still stuck with traffic tickets that routinely go into triple digits, along with a $75 “surcharge” that should have been retired long ago. Judges, by the way, can reduce traffic fines depending on circumstances, but not the surcharge. That, too, should change.

Some cities in Minnesota make use of driver diversion programs, which allow drivers with unpaid tickets to take a safe-driving class, get their license and insurance reinstated, and pay off fines over time. That is a sensible approach, though not without its own costs.

The important element here is a recognition that taking away a driver’s license because of failure to pay fines is, in most instances, self-defeating. No one benefits when an otherwise law-abiding citizen winds up with no job, no insurance, an arrest warrant, and hundreds of dollars in fines and fees — all because of a traffic ticket.

As this state looks to reduce the pressures on an already overburdened criminal justice system, this is a solution waiting to happen.