Saturday, April 02, 2016

Eating Out Our Substance

The hidden costs of fines for breaking laws has long bothered me:

California is filled with people who are one traffic ticket away from losing their means of independent transportation. They get a ticket for a busted tail light or a small-change moving violation. On paper, the fine is $100, but with surcharges, it’s more like $490. People who cannot pay often do not show up in court — which drives up the cost. According to the Judicial Council of California, about 612,000 Californians have suspended driver’s licenses because they didn’t pay fines. In 2013, more people — 510,811 — had their licenses suspended for not paying fines than the 150,366 who lost their licenses for drunken driving.

How is this fair? Why should it be government policy to essentially entrap the poor by using some minor offense like a traffic violation to build up the offenses because the penalties far exceed the gravity of the original offense?

And not only does government push people to violating more laws by failing to pay outrageous penalties, the government is in the business of depriving people of the ability to make money:

“For a lot of people, the car is the only asset they own in this whole damn world,” noted Mike Herald of the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “When you take their car, you’re taking the thing that helps them make money.”

If government is what we choose to do together, as liberals like to say, I want it clear that I'm not happy with screwing people without much money for trivial offenses.

We've expressed our displeasure with this sort of thing before.

The problem is that ever-expanding government needs money. And rather than simply appropriate money to the courts, to free up money for other things state legislatures allow courts to tack on fees on top of the relatively small fines found in the statutes.

So the courts have an incentive to punish just to keep their lights on.

That hidden penalty offends me alone, even apart from the effect on the poor and working class.

People should be able to easily look in the penal or traffic code, or whatever, and see what the punishment is. Why should a person need to be an expert in figuring out which sections of law grant a court the power to levy fees and then find the court rules that set out the costs?

State legislatures should fully fund courts from regular appropriations and take back the judicial branch power to levy fees on top of the statutory penalties.

If legislatures want to increase the penalties, they should have to do it clearly and directly--not grant courts the power to do it in obscurity under cover of fees.

Tip to Instapundit.

UPDATE: A late addition about a judge who doesn't like this racket (via Instapundit).