Judges deserve leeway for fines

Judges deserve leeway for fines

The Oregon Legislature should not backfill proposed cuts to the state judicial budget by further limiting judges' abilities to reduce harsh traffic fines and fees when appropriate, a Central Point legislator says.

"When we raise traffic fines to a level where many citizens cannot or will not pay them, we encourage civil disobedience by otherwise law-abiding citizens ... ," Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, wrote in a March newsletter.

Richardson said Tuesday that proposed cuts to the judiciary budget have pushed the court system to generate more revenue from fees and fines.

"The court system should be a separate branch of the government, funded from the general fund, and not dependant to any extent on fines," he said. "In fact, I would say that is a conflict of interest."

Richardson took specific aim at House Bill 2712 which, he said, should "not pass in its current condition."

The proposed bill prescribes presumptive fines for traffic violations and states: "... a court may not defer, waive, suspend or otherwise reduce the fine for a violation that is subject to the presumptive fines... ."

"How do you perform your duties as a judge if your hands are tied?" Richardson asked.

Former Gold Hill Municipal Court Judge Don Leahan said he agrees that judges need to be have discretion when it comes to handing down fines and fees.

In 2005, Leahan was outraged when he saw a 500 percent increase in traffic citations in Gold Hill over a one-month period. Leahan said the jump caused him to question whether the city had set up a "speed trap" and was trying to fund its police department through fines on motorists. He dismissed many of the tickets outright.

"I suspected the motivation was revenue and that should not be the driving force," Leahan said Wednesday in a telephone interview from Washington state, where he now lives. "I thought it was unfair to put that kind of burden on the backs of motorists."

Judges should be allowed to hear the facts of the case and determine the best resolution in the interests of justice, not coffers, Leahan said.

"I have no problem fining someone through the kazoo if they are repeat offenders," he said. "But if we're talking about some working mom with three kids who slowly slid through a stop sign on her way to some minimum wage job, then I say we need to be able to cut her some slack."

Richardson said he is increasingly concerned by legislative bills placing more and more restrictions on a judge's ability to use his or her discretion.

He recently received a letter from an angry 75-year-old Salem man, whose monthly income was $662. He was driving on Highway 99, near Crater High School in Central Point, when he was cited for speeding after failing to reduce his speed to 25 mph in a school zone.

It was the man's first speeding ticket. His fine was $729, Richardson wrote in his blog.

"Since the Legislature had previously removed most of the judge's discretion to adjust a fine, there was nothing the Judge could do other than approve a lengthy payment plan," he wrote.

A driver's inability to pay exorbitant fees, fines and penalties can create a traffic-related spiral that can cause otherwise law-abiding citizens to become criminals, Richardson said.

In 1999 there were 105,000 "failure to comply" suspensions issued by the Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles. In 2009, that number had climbed to 136,000, he said.

Richardson said the overall payments to the state have actually decreased since the traffic fine penalties were raised. In 1995 the state received $24 million. In 2008 it reached a peak of $48 million. Current figures show the amounts has dropped to $38 million.

The tactics of Gold Hill's now-defunct police department aside, Richardson said he suspects the harsh nature of the traffic penalties causes many police officers to be reluctant to issue citations in certain circumstances.

"Police officers know about these high prices," Richardson said. "If they see a woman in a beater car with three kids, they're going to let her off with a warning if they can. They know she can't pay."

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or e-mail

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