By Danza Johnson/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – When you pay a speeding ticket, it helps assure that someone picks up the phone when you call 911.
If you get your driver’s license suspended and pay the $25 reinstatement fee, it helps a Mississippi Highway Patrolman’s retirement.
If you run a red light and pay the fine, you help assure that a helicopter will pick up a loved one who was involved in a critical automobile accident.
While no one in law enforcement would recommend these behaviors, whether you are stopped for speeding or jaywalking, the bulk of the money you pay in fines goes to fund state and local government. In these times of strained budgets, that money is particularly important.
Everything from domestic violence training to your local D.A.R.E. program is funded from assessments added on to fines from various citations.
State Rep. Edward Blackmon, D-Canton, is chairman of the Mississippi House’s Judiciary A Committee that considers the assessments on these fines. Blackmon, who has chaired the committee for 19 years, said the fees paid to the state on fines play a pivotal part in making sure state government has enough money to operate.
“The assessments fund several sections of government,” said Blackmon. “We turn to that money to create revenue for the state. It’s sort of a safety net. It makes up for shortfalls in the budget and given our current financial state, it’s very important.”
Every week, Tupelo, Lee County and other municipalities and counties collect thousands of dollars in fines that are split with the state.
From 2005 through 2010, Tupelo police alone wrote 14,641 speeding citations involving vehicles traveling from 10 to 20 mph over the speed limit. At $157 a pop those citations produced $2,298,637. But because Tupelo only receives $50.50 apiece for those violations, the city collected only $739,370.50 for its general fund and Mississippi received the rest of the nearly $1.6 million.
Lee County gets $40 for a maximum speeding ticket in the county before the state assessment is added on to it. Even though deputies in Mississippi don’t have speed-detecting radar, they still can write speeding tickets. But most speeding tickets in the county are written by the Mississippi Highway Patrol and the county still receives the money from the fines.
Blackmon said almost every year the statute that sets the assessments is appealed to add more. In 2006, the total state assessment on a traffic violation was $51 per ticket. But as of July 1, 2011, that number increased to $77.50 and there’s a good chance 2012 will see another increase if the trend continues.
The amount of a fine a city or county can charge is set by state law. That amount is set at a maximum a judge can charge for a certain offense. There is no minimum requirement set by the state.
Fees for traffic citations can help boost local revenues just like they help to bolster the state budget. But Larry Montgomery, director of Tupelo’s Municipal Court, said that can happen only if the fines are actually paid, which they often aren’t.
Since the economy has been on shaky ground, Montgomery said many people who have large traffic fines are choosing to work them off instead.
“We always had people opting to work the fines off instead of paying them but now we are seeing a lot more people taking that option because of tough economic times,” said Montgomery. “A lot of people don’t have the extra money to pay a fine so they’d rather spend a few hours a day picking up trash or doing other jobs around the city until the debt is paid.”
When people work off their fines, neither the city nor state gets money from it. So far for fiscal year 2011, which ends Sept. 30, nearly $260,000 has been worked off in fines in Tupelo.
Just having a traffic ticket does not make a person eligible for the work program, said Montgomery. Usually a person will have to have more than one fine where the costs exceed a certain dollar amount.
Montgomery said there have always been rumors that law enforcement agencies have quotas to meet on ticket writing as a way to bolster revenue but said those claims are not true.
“No one sets a number amount on tickets an officer has to write,” said Montgomery. “An officer can write as many as he likes. But an officer has to write enough to satisfy his supervisor as a way to show productivity. But no one says you need X number of tickets per month.”
Paying the price
Blackmon said he understands that most people are unhappy with the fees assessed to traffic and other violations by the state. He said even though people often see these types of fees as financial inconveniences, they still want and need the services provided by charging the fees.
“The citizens want good services but they sometimes don’t understand what it takes to keep and improve them,” said Blackmon. “For us to be able to keep up services for the citizens of Mississippi this is a necessary process.”
Blackmon continued saying the assessments on these violations are designed to let those who create the offenses carry the burden of helping to pay for these services.
“Let the offenders pay,” said Blackmon.
WHAT THE STATE GETS
The state’s assessment on a moving traffic violation is now $77.50 and the amount local governments can charge on top of this is set by state law. The state’s take is divided this way:
$20.00 – Emergency Medical Services Operating Fund
$10.00 – Crisis Intervention Mental Health Fund
$10.00 – Drug Court Fund
$7.00 – Driver Training Penalty Assessment Fund
$6.00 – Spinal Cord and Head Injury Trust Fund
$5.00 – Law Enforcement Officers Training Fund
$2.89 – Capital Defense Counsel Fund
$2.33 – Capital Post-Conviction Counsel Fund
$2.29 – Indigent Appeals Fund
$2.00 – State Prosecutor Education Fund
$1.50 – State Prosecutor Compensation Fund for additional compensation for legal assistants to district attorneys
$1.50 – State Court Education Fund
$1.00 – Law Enforcement Officers and Fire Fighters Disability Benefits Trust Fund
$1.00 – Mississippi Leadership Council on Aging Fund
$1.00 – Public Defenders Education Fund
$1.00 – Domestic Violence Training Fund
$1.00 – Attorney General’s Cyber-Crime Unit
$0.50 – Vulnerable Adults Training, Investigation and Prosecution Trust Fund
$0.50 – Child Support Prosecution Trust Fund
$.050 -Law Enforcement Officers and Fire Fighters Death Benefits Trust Fund
$0.49 – Victims of Domestic Violence Fund
$77.50 – TOTAL STATE ASSESSMENT