Skip to comments.In bad economy, drivers buckling under traffic tickets
Posted on 05/16/2011 8:52:18 AM PDT by DeaconBenjamin
Rosemary Smith saw the motorcycle cop's flashing lights behind her, and her eyes immediately started to well up.
She was going 17 mph over the speed limit and faced a $256 fine, the officer told her after she pulled into a parking lot off Fourth Street N.
As she fought back tears, her life story spilled out. She was a full-time college student, her only income from part-time work as a bank teller. She had a wedding coming up in November.
"I've got house bills to pay," said Smith, 21, visibly shaken as she clutched the wheel of her blue Saturn. "I'm freaking out."
Motorists complaining about tickets is nothing new for traffic cops. But officers say they are sensing growing distress.
"A day doesn't go by when I don't see someone cry," said Officer Mauricio Steffek. "They can't believe how much the ticket costs. They'll tell me, 'Give me a break. I don't have a job now. I'm falling behind the mortgage or car payments.' "
Once a minor, if stressful, inconvenience, the everyday traffic citation is becoming a life altering breaking point for many.
And more and more, drivers aren't paying them creating a ripple effect in city and county budgets across Tampa Bay.
In St. Petersburg, the money collected from traffic tickets has dropped from $681,000 in 2008 to $494,214 in 2010. It's projected to dwindle even further this year despite the fact that police handed out 1,500 more tickets last year than they did in 2008.
"It's a drastic drop that means we have to find revenue from other places," said Tim Finch, St. Petersburg's director of budget and management. "It makes it tougher on other departments."
Pinellas County has seen its ticket revenue fall by $700,000 in two years. In Tampa, police estimate they will bring in $900,000 less than they did in 2008. In Hillsborough, fine collections are down nearly $3 million since 2008.
"It's directly related to the economy," said Hillsborough Clerk of Courts Pat Frank. "People are being more cautious because they can't afford it. And police officers are more reluctant to give out tickets when the fines are more costly."
In recent years, Florida's tax adverse politicians have raised fees to generate new revenue. Traffic law-flouting motorists are a tempting target because they don't garner public sympathy.
State lawmakers in 2009 approved new measures to produce more than $63 million, all from the pockets of wayward motorists. Included: a new $10 charge on all traffic infractions, cutting an 18 percent discount for attending traffic school, and a $25 increase for exceeding the speed limit by 15 to 29 mph.
Local governments tack on more charges. In Pinellas County, for instance, each citation can get assessed an extra $30 for court costs; $3 for driver education safety programs; $3 for teen court; and $2 to pay for public safety applicant screenings.
Tickets range from $62 for a bicycle infraction to $456 for traveling 20 to 29 mph over the limit in a school or construction zone. If a driver is hit with multiple violations, such as speeding, not wearing a seat belt and having an expired tag, fines can climb to nearly $700.
In times like these, a ticket can be a severe blow to those living paycheck to paycheck.
Officers have the discretion to waive the ticket if they think the driver would be better served with a warning. Traffic cops like to say it's about public safety, not the money.
On a recent Tuesday morning, Steffek listened to Smith's tale of woe. He called up her driving history. Clean. He decided to waive the fine.
"It would have been hard for me to pay," said Smith, grateful and smiling.
As she drove away, Steffek said he had imagined himself in her predicament.
"She was shaking really bad," he said. "She was scared."
Pain felt by drivers is so evident their biggest supporters are often the cops who stop them.
"Our deputies feel that because of the way the economy is, they give out a lot more warnings," said Detective Larry McKinnon, Hillsborough sheriff's spokesman.
Same with Pinellas.
"We're very aware of some of the cost," said spokeswoman Marianne Pasha. "If there is an opportunity to write a warning, rather than write a citation, that's what we'll do."
In many cases, deputies won't write multiple citations like they did in the past. If someone with a clean driving record is caught speeding without wearing a seat belt, McKinnon said, they'll be cited for a seat belt violation.
"We're more tolerant," he said. "People have lost their jobs and are struggling. A lot of times you'll see families in the car. How do you write someone a $700 ticket when they have a carload of kids?"
Empathy comes with a price.
Pinellas is on track to write 2,000 fewer tickets than it did two years ago. Hillsborough tickets dropped by 40,000 from 2008 to 2010. Not all of that stemmed from deputies waiving tickets, McKinnon said.
The other reason also is economic: There are fewer deputies out there writing tickets.
In St. Petersburg, police are handing out more tickets than ever, but fewer people are paying, said Lt. William Korinek, who oversees traffic enforcement.
"People are saying that the tickets are too expensive," Korinek said. "For the most part, they're not criminals. They're people like you and me, average people going about their day. "
On a recent Tuesday, Chris Robinson, a retired 64-year-old, was running errands when he was stopped for speeding.
He was going 48 mph in a 35 mph zone. The fine: $206.
"I can't pay it," Robinson said as his shoulders sagged and he cradled his face in his hand. "I'm on a fixed income. It's going to kill me."
Fined drivers can pay the full sum within 30 days, or spread the fine out in six monthly installments.
An increasingly popular option: People can work off the debt with community service.
"Economic conditions are driving that," said Hazel Bure, director of the court and operational services at the Pinellas County Clerk of Court. "The traffic fines are very high."
Drivers calculate the hours they need to work for a nonprofit by dividing the fine by the $7.25 hourly minimum wage. A $206 fine would be almost 29 hours. The fine isn't waived until the courts get a verification letter from the nonprofit.
The option is a boon to groups like Habitat for Humanity. Since 2008, the nonprofit has seen the number of people volunteering to pay off tickets double to about 12 a week, said Kevin Klucas, the group's volunteer coordinator.
"It works well for us, and hopefully becomes a good experience for them, too," Klucas said.
While some turn the experience into a productive one, officials say others let a ticket disrupt their lives. If a fine isn't paid, a motorist's driver's license is suspended, a misdemeanor that can mean going to jail. The state doesn't track the number of suspended licenses, but some law enforcement officers say there has been a rise.
A look at Pinellas County jail records show that more than 7,000 people were processed for that charge since 2005.
The majority of those were people arrested on the charge for the second or third time.
During rush hour last week, Steffek and fellow St. Petersburg Officer Chris Dort stopped more than a dozen drivers in two hours. Nearly everyone fretted about the fine.
"I work hard and make just enough to pay my bills," said Bob Samples, a 47-year-old restaurant worker facing a $206 speeding ticket. John Zurek was looking at $256 for going 17 mph over the limit. A 20-year-old St. Petersburg College student who recently quit his job at a sandwich shop, Zurek said he didn't know where he'd get the money.
Whatever strain motorists are feeling, it may only get worse.
St. Petersburg officials are installing red light cameras to catch offenders and will likely start handing out $158 tickets this summer. Hillsborough County already does. Tampa soon will.
"I feel bad for some of these drivers," Dort said. "People are busy. They're running around, trying to make ends meet. It's real rough out there."
I can’t believe the number of taxation by entrapment supporters there are on this thread.
Traffic tickets have never been about safety. They are 100% about revenue. Want to increase revenue.... stop patrolling the highway. Put these cops to work on real police work or fire them. The gas expense you save alone having these fools drive up and down the highway will more than make up any reduction in revenue.
The article addresses speeding in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, FL.
The article is BS -as are many of the posts-from-the-hip on this thread.
Citing one guilty case and an officer’s leniency does not explain why people are not paying their traffic fines. This is the real message of this article. People are blowing off the law, not paying fines and driving after their license is revoked. This is what is represented by the gross gaps in fine receipts. The article otoh seems to be saying “be nice and pay those fines”. It’s ridiculous.
I live here and have received 4 citations over the past year from both counties. Total cost about $1800. I had none in 3 years, then 4 within 10 months with no change in my driving route, hours or speeds. Nearly all of my tickets were speed traps. Some speed traps were recent creations, like the Veterans’ Expressway to JFK blvd and others were ones I didn’t know of.
Basically, how it goes in these counties is they do some road work, remove the old, higher speed limit signs and after the work replace them with a single lower speed limit sign placed on an entrance ramp to an elevated roadway (the Veterans Expressway trap) or far back on the road after merging in from a higher speed limit road. After several months they finally properly posted the Veterans Expressway 50mph limit (down from 65) following complaints.
They also now target the commuters when they used to mostly leave them alone. Commuters are now prey to be culled for revenue as apparently it’s deemed they will pay the fines to be able to work.
It’s about revenue and people are not paying in these counties in increasing numbers. They are ignoring the law. It’s a very bad precident essentially saying the state and LEOs are preying upon the public and, in increasing numbers, the public does not recognize the legality and or validity of the law or its judgement. But this is not an issue somehow because Ms. Smith cries and is not given a ticket.
Don't give them any new ideas.
Yeah, you have a good point, I’ll give you that.
I live in this area. IMHO, they have shortened the yellow lights in order to force people to run the red at the cameras. I have seen so many people screech to a halt in an intersection to avoid running the red.
Those red light cameras are going to kill someone - I’m sure they have already. They are violent intrusions on American freedoms.
The old folks in FL love them, because they snarl up the traffic driving 10 miles below the speed limit on all the roads, and they don’t want their taxes raised.
What used to be a minor $20 ticket is now 200+ and also makes you mandatory insurance rate skyrocket for years to come. Oppression takes many forms.
Special dispensations? .........
“Traffic cops like to say it’s about public safety, not the money”
“The old folks in FL love them, because they snarl up the traffic driving 10 miles below the speed limit on all the roads”
Always in the left lane as well.
It takes money to tighten that belt.
Three extra ‘workers’ to pull on the end of it; another two extra to anchor the other end, and a sixth extra to cinch the buckle.
And that can only happen after an outside consultant has been hired; three studies completed; and a PR campaign implimented; and a Cost Containment Management Theam has been hired.
Saving money is a very costly operation, IF you’re the government.
I look at cops now no different than I do the rude sob’s at the DMV.
I used to actually give a damn when I heard about cops getting injured in the line of duty - now I just turn the channel.
They earned the general hatred the public has for them, and its only going to get worse.
Where I live - these bs artists w badges never walk the beat, never treat the taxpayer with respect, and just ride around in the car on their cell phone busting chops and giving out ridiculous tickets.
You clubbed a baby seal!@!!
I agree that the sympathy for that motorist, was overplayed.
Grown-ups realize that you have to follow the rules, even if you don’t like them. As for the local police agencies playing games to increase revenues, that is wrong too.
I agree with regard to disregard for the law, and the need to comply with the court’s rulings related to fines.
It is interesting that citizens have now figured out that they can live at least temporarily by the same laws the illegal aliens have lived by for decades, totally ignoring our justice system.
The problem is, bench warrants are a very rude awakening, and a lot of people are in for the shock of their lives in the months and years to come.
Cops and judges NEED to be PO’d...frequently.
Its high time these thugs with badges and imbeciles in robes understand WHO they work for.
What was it that we hated about the USSR? Neighbors spying on neighbors? Kids spying on parents? Fear to voice your opinion? Think about what we detested about their police state and transpose what we have now and where we are going, in the name of National Security!
bad economy??? what bad economy? the media keeps saying everything is fine...(rolling eyes)
They're also the same folks who will be coming to confiscate our guns someday.