Tickets As Taxes: A Cautionary Tale from California

Last year a traveler from Texas was socked with a speeding ticket in Coalinga, California. The fine was $500, the maximum permitted under California law. That may have been deserved: He was doing over 100 mph at the time. But on top of the fine, the municipal court added $850 in fees.

Are court costs out of control in Coalinga? Not really. The $850 went to many other things besides court costs because the state of California applies sizable surtaxes in proportion to traffic fines. The revolt by taxpayers in that state forced governments to look for non-tax revenues, and motorists were a handy target. Local governments must even meet a quota for sending ticket taxes to Sacramento. If you get a ticket in Coalinga, you will pay a fine and then you will contribute fees to these programs in the following proportions:

  • 32.02% to the Restitution Fund

  • 25.70% to the Driver Training Penalty Assessment Fund

  • 23.99% to the Peace Officers’ Training Fund

  • 8.64% to the Victim and Witness Assistance Fund

  • 7.88% to the Corrections Training Fund

  • 0.78% to the Local Public Prosecutors and Public Defenders Training Fund

  • 0.66% to the Traumatic Brain Injury Fund

  • 0.33% to the Fish and Game Preservation Fund

In the case of the visiting Texan, the 87-year-old violator didn’t have $1,350 and pleaded to be allowed to go to jail instead of paying the fees. The court refused to jail him, but generously allowed a time-payment plan, for an extra $35 in interest.

Could Michigan motorists ever face fines like this? Not yet, but some cities and courts in Michigan have turned to tickets as a source of revenue. Courts in Hamtramck and St. Clair Shores attach extra costs to pay for new court buildings that judges think they need. Municipalities (Allen Park, for example) are enacting truck-weight ordinances not just to protect pavements from overweight trucks, but to claim large overweight fines. And fines of several hundred dollars for traffic offenses are becoming common, as municipalities such as Lansing double fines in construction or school zones. Only general guidelines govern the size of fines and court costs.

Things are different at the state level. After lawyers argued that it was prejudicial to give police a cut of the fines, Michigan law in 1978 awarded fines to county libraries. No cops or courts will get rich from writing tickets on state highways.

But Michigan has started back down the road toward traffic-ticket taxation. Recent laws add $15 to each moving-violation fine. Ten of those dollars pay for State Police and local road patrols, and courts keep five dollars for the Michigan Justice Training Fund. Although the "assessments" are supposedly not a replacement for agencies’ annual budgets, officers know that the extra bucks take pressure off the state during appropriations and salary negotiations with police unions.

The legislature is toying with further surtaxes. One House bill would apply a whopping 200 percent surtax on fines for trucks that violate the 55-mph limit on freeways or springtime speed restrictions on weak pavements.

It’s easy to rationalize fine surtaxes by saying that violators "deserve" to pay. But when officials have an interest in increasing, not preventing, traffic violations, they’ll be tempted to increase the take by turning law-abiding motorists into outlaws through excessive regulation. The favored means is by ratcheting down speed limits; for instance, legislators are currently pondering school-zone speed limits of 15 mph. Politicians will wrap such proposals in the cloak of public safety, labeling opponents irresponsible speed demons, while ad campaigns by police agencies exaggerate traffic dangers.

At present, Michigan motorists must obey any traffic ordinance a city council concocts. These can get bizarre: drivers on Highland Street in East Lansing will find three stop signs, one of them in the middle of a block. To stop this silliness, Michigan should follow the lead of other states and require traffic signs to be based on traffic-engineering standards if they are to have the force of law.

As voters resist tax increases, it becomes tempting to raise fines and court costs. Money has a corrupting influence in traffic ordinances, police practices, and court decisions unless revenue accrues to a fund that doesn’t benefit the enforcers.

The aim of traffic law should be safety, not revenue. Michigan motorists can count on neither safety nor justice as long as police, courts and cities live on traffic fines. Michigan motorists should be as careful about court and police finance as they are about driving. And they should be especially careful if they drive in Coalinga, California.