Star Tribune

Opinion

Traffic fines: State takes local revenue

As with the goose that laid the golden egg, a higher authority is bankrupting the future.

Article by: KURT GLASER

Updated: March 27, 2012 - 7:44 PM

Counterpoint

The March 25 article "Cash can erase speeding tickets" revealed symptoms of greater problems in Minnesota's justice system.

Shortsighted administration of our judicial system is killing effective enforcement of traffic laws and other low-level offenses. In just the past few years, prosecutors have witnessed an evolving patchwork of policies from state court administration under which the court system secured its budgets at the expense of local police departments.

The article correctly pointed out a practice whereby, in exchange for higher fines, prosecutors will dismiss some low-level offenses. While some may find this practice distasteful, it is more important to examine why this practice exists.

The answer can be found in the proverbial story warning against killing the goose that lays the golden eggs. That's what has happened through the state court system's recent practice of siphoning millions of dollars of fine revenue away from local law enforcement.

Once upon a time, the story goes, there was a goose that laid golden eggs. Instead of waiting for the goose to lay more golden eggs, the greedy king killed the goose to retrieve the eggs inside the bird. Of course, this ended the run of golden eggs.

Once upon a time in Minnesota, police departments were funded with fine revenue. Over the last few years, the state court administration (sometimes acting without legislative approval) took ever-increasing amounts of this revenue.

Instead of funding revenue needs by charging offenders with higher fines, the state court administration capped the fines paid by offenders and tapped revenue formerly used to fund local police departments.

And now the goose is dead -- there are no more golden eggs. For example, a seat-belt ticket costs $110, yet the police department that wrote that ticket receives the princely sum of $0. The police officer who wrote that ticket was not paid in magic beans.

A local government paid the officer's salary; it also paid for a prosecutor, squad cars, radios and nearly everything else necessary to enforce that law. And it still must pay its officers to protect and serve the public in countless other ways.

How can we fund police departments after the "golden goose" is dead? This question gets far more serious when departments have to answer questions like: Can we afford bulletproof vests to protect our officers? Or: Can we even afford to pay police officer salaries?

The real moral to this story is that it's time to examine the judicial system's handling of low-level offenses and fine payments. Yes, this is a complex and bureaucratic side to running our law enforcement system, but the idea that by transferring revenue away from police departments to pay for the courts' budget shortfalls only solves one problem by creating another.

Remember, there is still another proverb that applies here: "You get what you pay for."

If we are going to let the courts kill the golden goose, then it is hard to complain when prosecutors use inventive ways to fund their police departments. There are new and creative ways in which we can work toward sound judicial administration and solid law enforcement.

For example, several cities in Anoka County lead the state in an effort to educate traffic offenders through online education (resulting in the dismissal of their offenses without charging more than the fine) at www.payyourticket.org.

But the system won't work when the courts pit themselves against law enforcement.

________________

Kurt Glaser is a prosecutor for two suburban cities in Anoka County.

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