OPINION — You’ve just noticed the red and blue lights strobing in your rearview mirror. You pull over with the sinking realization that, for whatever reason, you’re the latest winner of the roadside lottery.
What’s the first thought that goes through your mind?
Are you more concerned about the potential blemish on your record or about how you’re going to come up with the money to pay your fine?
For most of us, coming up with the money to pay the fine is by far the more realistic stress.
Anyone who has spent any time in a so-called “justice court” cannot help but recognize that these courts more closely resemble revenue collection stations than halls of justice. Anyone who has faced financial challenges in paying off the fine associated with their citation can attest that the system is primarily concerned with getting their money.
If they don’t have the money in hand to pay their fine, the system is designed to start playing hardball to get them to cough it up.
This creates two potential problems.
First of all, it can place individuals who are struggling financially into a destructive cycle where their already limited resources are being further depleted by the most demanding creditor of them all: the state.
Say a person is ticketed for his or her automobile registration being expired. With license plate readers becoming a standard fixture on police cars in even small towns, the system is actively searching for new “customers” every time that cruiser is driven down the street.
When a license plate is flagged and the offender – who may have been obeying all traffic laws – is pulled over, the true justification for the stop is that the state wants to get money out of them.
If the reason they’ve failed to renew their registration was that they were short on funds, how is saddling them with a stiff fine and possible impound charges going to improve their situation? It isn’t.
What started as one difficulty for this person has now been compounded into several new ones. In fact, without a vehicle, their chances of staying gainfully employed drop even further.
When they can’t pay their fines, the state takes more drastic steps up to and including putting them in jail. The fines intended to satisfy the demands of “justice” have not solved a problem, they’ve exacerbated existing ones.
It’s easy to sneer and say, “Don’t break the law” when the force of the state is being directed at someone who’s not you. But with innumerable laws, ordinances and statutes on the books already – and more being created each year – luck plays a bigger role in avoiding the state’s unwanted attention than strict obedience does.
Unfortunately, that’s a lesson each person must learn for himself or herself.
The second problem that arises from using fines to exact justice is that they can incentivize revenue collection on the part of the state. We joke about ticket quotas and speed traps with an exasperated shrug, but the temptation is high for many municipalities to use them anyway.
A friend who was a former Salt Lake City motorcycle officer has blown the whistle on the number of citations his squad was required to write each shift and the kind of fines that accompanied them. You don’t have to be an accountant to recognize the amount of potential revenues those citations were generating day after day.
Those fines can represent big money for municipalities who treat them as a kind of “slush fund on wheels” for the state. Assuming that justice is the authentic goal here, it seems highly immoral for cities to generate revenue by looking for reasons to ticket some of their most vulnerable citizens.
It’s time to consider alternatives to equating the administration of justice with handing money to the state.
One possible solution that could address both problems listed above is to allow offenders the option of performing community service instead of simply paying a fine. This isn’t providing them the chance to skate on their offense since paying off a $100 fine could take hours of community service to accomplish.
Instead of securing forgiveness simply by handing money to the state, which wasn’t the victim in the first place, offenders could provide meaningful service to nonprofit organizations in their communities.
Such an approach would provide genuine latitude that would allow an offender to pay his or her debt to society without placing them in greater financial hardship. It would also reduce the temptation to send forth officers each day with instructions to find reasons to write citations as a means of keeping the money flowing.
Correcting these practices and reducing the number of petty laws on the books would go a long ways towards restoring essential trust between the citizens and members of law enforcement.
Bryan Hyde is an opinion columnist specializing in current events viewed through the lens of common sense. The opinions stated in this article are his and not representative of St. George News.
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