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  • Under the Dome: A traffic ticket shouldn't ruin your life

    Under the Dome
    By Chuck Huckelberry
    Pima County Administrator

    Being poor is not a crime. Neither is speeding, running a stop sign or making an unsafe lane change; they’re all civil traffic offenses only punishable by a fine. Yet for Arizonans with limited incomes, a simple traffic infraction can cause a cascade of consequences that further tighten the chains of poverty. 

    Why? Because state and local governments have driven up the cost of fines for infractions and misdemeanors to the point the poor can’t afford to pay them. Failure to pay these fines often results in Chuck Huckelberrysuspended licenses and potentially even arrest warrants.  

    Have you ever been late to work and pushed the line on the allowable speed limit only to see your rearview mirror fill with flashing red and blue lights? It happens to all of us at one time or another. Should that momentary lapse in judgment ruin your life? 

    For most people it won’t, but for too many Arizonans trying to eke out a living, it might. It would be easy to dismiss this by saying, “Well, they should have obeyed the law.” But the consequences can far exceed the offense due to the run up in surcharges and fees over the past 20 years.  

    In 1997, the charge for exceeding the speed limit by up to 10 miles an hour in Pima County was $50. Of that, 59 percent, or $29.69, was the fine for the violation; the balance was a state surcharge. Today, the charge is $214.75, but only 30 percent, or $64.89, is the fine. The other 70 percent is surcharges, including a 10 percent fee to fund clean elections. 

    If the charge for speeding had kept up with inflation over the past 20 years, it would only be about $76 now, a 52 percent increase. Instead, the total charge has increased 330 percent. 

    The politics of taxation is driving the increase. The criminal justice system in Arizona used to be primarily paid for through general funds of state, county and local governments, which are supported by property, sales and income taxes, depending on the jurisdiction. Over the past 20 years, there has been an increase in governments, especially the state, diverting some funds from the criminal justice system to other programs and making up the difference by raising the fines, fees and surcharges for violating the law. 

    Increasing fees and fines raises revenue without a tax increase is politically expedient, but the result is awful. It essentially criminalizes poverty. 

    Those who fail to pay their traffic fines lose their driver’s licenses. If they fail to appear in court, an arrest warrant is issued (and in other parts of the state, an arrest warrant might issue simply because they failed to pay the fine). Thousands of people a year who lost their licenses because of nonpayment of fines are later cited for the criminal offense of driving on a suspended license. All of this can lead to jail stays, job loss, home loss, the inability to obtain credit or school loans, loss of occupational licenses and more. 

    In Pima County, to help address the effects of these arrest warrants, local justice and municipal courts have held special Warrant Resolution Courts on evenings and weekends. 

    These events have helped thousands of people get their lives back on track while still making amends. Participants have had arrest warrants quashed, suspensions lifted and driver’s licenses reinstated. Others have established new payment plans or reestablished payment plans that fell into arrears.

    But this is treating the symptom, not the disease of onerous fines and fees for minor offenses. All jurisdictions, including Pima County and especially the state Legislature, should review penalties for criminal and civil infractions and determine whether the fines are fair and just. 

    We can’t help people break the chains of poverty by taking more of what they don’t have. 
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    130 W. Congress
    Tucson, AZ 85701

    (520) 724-9999

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