Legalese — Why Do Traffic Tickets Cost So Much?

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No one wants a traffic ticket.  In addition to the heart stopping process that is being pulled over with blue lights and sirens behind you, there is the cost of paying the ticket, and the basic hassle of having to deal with it.

Often, these tickets seem to be ridiculously high as compared to the seriousness of the underlying offense.  People will try to negotiate the size of these fees with the Court.  Sometimes the Court has discretion, and sometimes the Court doesn’t.  Georgia has a large number of add-on ‘surcharges’ – more so than most states. 

These surcharges are either a set amount or a percentage of the underlying fine.  These surcharges are collected by the individual courts, but are passed right on to the State – the City or County that collects them does not get to use them.  Instead, these surcharges are each designated for a specific state purpose.  This purpose may be for the training of law enforcement officers, to help treat brain and spinal injuries, to pay for the defense of people who cannot afford their own attorneys, law libraries, retirement funds, drug abuse treatment, to help victims of crimes, and other specific purposes designated by the legislature.

On the surface, it’s a good idea.  Rather than have everyone pay for these things, this is a ‘tax’ imposed on people who have broken the law, requiring them to pay for these noble purposes.  However, the situation is more complex that it appears.  In some instances, the surcharges may almost double the initial fine.  This can be a problem, especially in the wake of the Department of Justice’s Ferguson Report, which blasts municipal courts for unevenly affecting the lives of the poor.  Paying a $100 fine can be tough for some people – double that with the surcharges and it is twice as tough.  That leads to people being placed on probation, which adds supervision fees to an already cash-strapped individual.  Whereas, if the person could pay the $200 to begin with, they’d never be on probation at all.  Georgia is in the minority of states that classify traffic offenses as misdemeanors – criminal offenses, rather than their own category of offenses.    

There are some concerns that the money is not being used for what its legislative purpose is.  Unfortunately, in the past Georgia has diverted these earmarked funds to the general budget instead of the special purpose funds they are legally required to go to.

There are no simple solutions to this problem, though researchers in the Department of Sociology at the University of Georgia are working on it.  I will let you know if I hear what they come up with.

Nothing in this article should be construed as legal advice.  It is being offered for informational purposes only.

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