On Tickets and Fines
Last week the Washington Supreme Court voted to raise the base penalty of traffic tickets by $12. Unfortunately the net result of that increase will be more than $12, and the increase will hurt our must vulnerable citizens.In Washington we calculate fines by starting with “base penalties.” This link lists the base penalties of almost all infractions on the books. But there’s another phrase in that link: “statutory assessments.” These are assessment that, via statute, raise the base penalty. This can more than double the penalties listed in the link.
Let’s take an extreme example: Negligent Driving in the Second Degree (Neg 2). We can see from the list of base penalties that Neg 2 is among the highest base penalties. $250 is indeed pretty steep for traffic ticket. But then we add statutory assessments.
$250 x .7 from RCW 3.62.090(1)
($250 x .7) x .5 from RCW 3.62.090(2)
$5 from RCW 46.63.110(7)(a)
$10 from RCW 46.63.110(7)(b)
$2 from RCW 46.63.110(7)(c)
$20 from RCW 46.63.110(8)(a)
$549.50, which is permissibly rounded up, to get a final fine of $550.
When the newly increased fines go into effect, plugging the new base penalty of Neg 2 is $262. The formula gives us a new final fine of $574. On the one hand that’s not substantially higher, but on the other hand due to these additional assessments the fine increases to double what was announced.
This $24 difference on an already high fine may mean little to you or me but it may be a significant burden to others. For those $574 could represent an entire week of work, or even more. And taking the time off work to contest the ticket, or hiring a lawyer to fight it for you, has costs as well.
For a family scraping by paycheck to paycheck, one of these tickets can be brutal. Members of the judiciary have taken notice of the disproportionate effect of raising the penalties of infractions. Judge Kessler, who I’ve written about before, sent an email to other judges decrying this increase as unfairly burdensome to the poor.
The email was leaked to local rag The Stranger. The article is well worth a read but this line sums the issue up well:
“Is $12 more going to make for better citizens, or is it certain to impose a greater burden on the poor whether they pay or work it off?”
And he is right of course, the announcement from our supreme court acknowledges the increase is solely to fund the task of administering the courts, and nothing to do with actually discouraging people from committing crimes and infractions.
But is there any solution? How do we solve the problem of funding the courts, nominally in part with traffic fines, without also disproportionately hurting the poor among us? Well we could do what Finland is doing.
Finland uses a system called the day-fine, the essence of which is for petty crimes and infractions, fines are based on the violator’s income. For particularly poor people the fine may be less than what exists now. For the particularly wealthy, the fine is much greater.
I admit, I love this idea. Would the possibility of being slapped with a $100,000 fine deter speeding in school zones? Hopefully. Would the single parent struggling paycheck to paycheck not have to decide whether to pay a license plate infraction or take a sick kid to urgent care? Hopefully again. Even acknowledging I may pay more myself under this system, I believe it would be a net positive for society. The skeptics may argue that people in nicer cars would be disproportionately targeted by police by 1) The opposite of that happens now, to all our detriment, and 2) it sounds like more people would be hiring me to represent them, which seems great. In any event I think it’s worth a shot.
If you have an opinion on this, do post a comment below. And if you or someone you know has been been given a ticket or charged with a crime, feel free to give me a call.
*Thanks to Vitaly Kertchen of Tacoma, WA for assisting with the breakdown of infraction fines.