Skyrocketing traffic fines cause some drivers to lose their cars -- or worse

Highway robbery has taken on a whole new meaning with local and state governments now jacking up the fines to such an extent that it's leaving people destitute, and in some cases, homeless or even incarcerated.

In California, the cost of a ticket for a broken headlight nearly tripled to $100 this year, according to a report by Fox News. Meanwhile, fines for parking in front of a fire hydrant in Pensacola, Fla. were jacked up 900% to $100.

Local and state governments have long turned to issuing traffic and parking fines as a way of raising more revenue, but doubling or tripling the amount of traffic fines for modest violations seems less like "enforcing the law" and more like a form of extortion aimed at filling the dwindling coffers of local government.
Making matters worse, all of this is happening at a time when millions of citizens are struggling to eke out a living on unemployment or lower incomes. The increases are creating dire situations for those unable to pay skyrocketing fees and penalties. The Atlantic, for example, recently reported about a family whose minor traffic infractions snowballed into jail time and homelessness.

The chain of events between receiving a run-of-the-mill traffic ticket and finding yourself out on the streets are not as outlandish as they might seem. Take the scenario below for example:

1. A driver is stopped for a defective taillight. Where in the past such tickets would be cleared once the driver repairs the light, now some municipalities are issuing large fines regardless of whether the defect is fixed or not.

2. The officer asks for current auto insurance, and finding it has expired (because the driver couldn't afford his payments), issues yet another ticket.

3. Since the driver is just getting by, he can neither afford to get the taillight repaired, pay the fines (added together, in the hundreds of dollars) or renew the auto insurance, which might well have climbed now that the driver has received a couple of traffic tickets.

4. Then things snowball out of control. The driver receives a relatively minor infraction (not coming to a complete stop at a deserted intersection, illegal right turn, etc.), now the unpaid previous tickets trigger a huge penalty and another ticket. Knowing he cannot pay the accumulated fines (now easily over $1,000), he either contacts the court asking for mercy or simply ignores the summons as a hopeless cause.

5. If the hapless driver is unfortunate enough to be stopped again, his failure to respond to his previous summons could trigger an arrest and the impoundment of his vehicle.

If law-abiding citizens are losing their cars, their livelihoods or their freedom because of minor traffic infractions, it can't honestly be considered "justice."

While it's easy to understand the need for local government to raise revenue, that need does not justify raising it through "by any means necessary" traffic fine increases. There is no real deterrence value to such stupendous fines. In fact, many of these increases are essentially unknown to everyday citizens -- some discover that a moving violation ticket has been hiked up to $500 or more only when they receive the "courtesy notice" in the mail.

Since we are a nation founded on the principle of "taxation with representation," shouldn't local governments be asking the taxpayers for higher taxes at the ballot box, or making the case for higher taxes to our elected officials? It seems to me that boosting traffic fines to back-breaking levels is a way of raising money "through the back door" rather than by directly making a case for higher taxes.

In the long run, such huge fines not only serve to anger taxpayers and delegitimize local governments, but they also divert our law enforcement resources away from more important crime-fighting measures.

Charles Hugh Smith writes the Of Two Minds blog and is the author of numerous books, most recently "Survival+: Structuring Prosperity for Yourself and the Nation."
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