The $3,000 speeding ticket: States double-dip for basic traffic infractions

You get a $50 traffic ticket on a road trip. You go home and send in the fine. Then, two months later, you get a notice in the mail that demands you cough up another $300 or lose your license and be subject to a criminal case. And because you paid that first traffic fine, you have essentially admitted guilt, so there's no way to escape or contend the new charges.

The Fast and Furious

    Some states have adopted so-called Driver Responsibility laws, that kick in after drivers lose a certain number of points on their licenses. These laws allow states to legally bill drivers in an amount far greater than the fine for the speeding ticket already paid in court.

    Texas state senator Eliot Shapleigh complained on his website that after three tickets for minor infractions, charges can reach more than $3,000.

    Citizens in Texas are banding together to fight these laws. Pictured here is a portion of the Myspace page for the advocacy group, Fight the Texas Responsibility Program.

    Efforts to rally against these laws have been difficult. Drivers who already paid the fine for a speeding ticket have therefore admitted guilt and can be charged an additional fine.

    Alabama Department of Public Safety / AP

Over past few years, some states have adopted what's loosely (and euphemistically) called Driver Responsibility laws, sometimes sold to the public as "bad driver" taxes since they kick in after drivers lose a certain number of points on their licenses. Using these laws, states can come back to you later and legally bill you for amounts that far exceed, usually by multiples, whatever you agreed to pay in court. It doesn't matter if you live in another state. And if you don't pay, that state can make it a crime for you to drive within its borders again. If you do, the case will no longer be civil--it will be criminal.

"Seems to me the low speeding fine was bait for a guilty plea so they could slap this on me a month or two down the road," complained one unnamed motorist to a driver advocacy website.

States bill the law as a measure to curb bad drivers, but there is no driver education aspect--it's all about forcing you to send money in. If drivers don't have enough cash to clear their records, they can't drive legally again. Many of the people who get these bills in the mail were cited not for drunk driving but for minor infractions such as speeding, or even for not filing correct paperwork.

I'm just a layman, but this law seems like the ugly cousin of double jeopardy, the unconstitutional practice in which someone is tried twice for the same crime. In this instance, though, states are punishing twice for the same crime, largely for the sake of padding their budgets (New Jersey is reported to have made $1 billion off the program since 1993). Gone are the days when if you did the crime you did your time. With these laws, once you pay the fine on your ticket, the expenses keep coming from other branches of the government.

And as you might expect, states appear to be taking advantage of these laws to milk drivers. In Texas, one state senator complains that after three tickets for minor infractions, charges can reach more than $3,000. In Virginia, driving as little as 15 mph over the speed limit knocks six points off a license. Suddenly, otherwise thoughtful people who went too fast on their way to work are finding themselves spending $3,000 at a time--a real hardship in any economy--to escape the blackmail of having a criminal charge filed against them. In New York state, minor infractions are followed up with a mailed demand to pay the state $100 a year or $300 at once. In Michigan, you can't appeal the fine by pleading hardship.

Because these laws are relatively new, few people know about them until they run afoul of them, and legal challenges are just beginning to brew. In Virginia, they were declared unconstitutional because they didn't apply to out-of-state drivers.

An increasing number of drivers are bursting with scorn for the tricky new loophole, although so far, they've been largely unsuccessful in kicking them off the books. In Texas, citizens are banding together to fight the surcharge, and nearly a million people are refusing to pay the new charges. But efforts to rally against the laws have been mostly lackluster, partly because they're still somewhat unknown, and partly because it can be tough to lobby for justice when you've already been convicted of something.

Advocates of Drivers Responsibility laws like to say that they're helping keep dangerous drivers off the streets, but to be frank, that's what the points system is for. We already have a system that punishes dangerous drivers, and what's more, it's governed by a system of oversight and appeals. Bad drivers already have their licenses suspended if they incur too many infractions. No, this law seems like more of a money grab by greedy states.
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