Imagine you’re caught speeding — or driving recklessly, or driving without a license — and you appear in traffic court all set to pay the fine. But then the judge tells you that he’s not only knocking your offense down to a warning, but also discounting your penalty and collecting the lesser amount as “court costs.” You’d probably be very happy. Only problem is, it’s probably illegal and it keeps bad drivers on the road.
For a good chunk of 2012, Atlanta’s WSBTV has been looking into the behavior of one area judge, who was recorded in open court saying, “It’s my policy to always reduce these to warnings and let you pay the fine as court costs… so it will not go on your record.”
The WSBTV reporter found that one-in-five tickets in just this particular city had been reduced to warnings, amounting to more than $1 million in fines that had been collected as court costs.
But the Chief Judge of neighboring DeKalb County’s traffic court tells the reporter that “You don’t charge for a warning… A warning is almost an adjudication of not guilty. It means that the case is not going forward against you. If you can’t be punished, you can’t be fined.”
Adds the judge, “There is absolutely no legal basis for keeping that money.”
Essentially, if the court collects fines — even if you’re calling them court costs — it is saying the driver is liable. And yet, by labeling the money something other than a fine, the drivers’ records are not impacted.
This may be acceptable for the occasional person who deserves a warning for going a few extra miles per hour over the speed limit, but keeping the state from knowing about offenses prevents law enforcement from identifying repeat offenders.
“I would say it’s dangerous to the community,” says the District Attorney for Clayton County, where the warning-happy judge works. “Nothing is written down on the record.”
“You cannot fine people if they are not convicted of the offense,” she adds.
A more recent story from WSBTV found more judges in the area similarly collecting fines as warnings.
One lawyer has already begun putting together a possible class-action suit on behalf of all the drivers who paid fines disguised as court costs.
More drivers charged for dismissed tickets [WSBTV.com]