Pay the fine, or else!


So here’s a simple rule of cause and effect. If you break the law and a police officer catches you, you go to court and face punishment. Well. . . if only life was so simple when prosecutors are under pressure to clear cases and will often accept plea bargains for probation, community service or other less than penal outcomes. But here comes an interesting variation on the theme. This time, it actually has a reasonable justification. Way back in 2003, the county lawmakers of Minnesota felt they should make safe driving a countywide priority. They also recognized the majority of people respond to a mixture of sticks and carrots. You can threaten people and this just makes them stubborn to persist in their current behavior. But if you negotiate with them, you can get some to change their behavior.

The plan was a straightforward bargain. If a resident was stopped by the police for a moving violation, he or she would be given the chance to avoid the ticket. All that was required was the “law-breaker’s” agreement to go through a county-approved safe driving class. Once the course administrator confirmed satisfactory performance, the ticket would be reduced to a flat fee of $125 for the course and no points were added to the license. For those who like the technical view, this was justified as a diversion program and those who argued it was a legal use of prosecutorial powers referred to the support of the attorney general and state auditor. For the record, the state had to agree because the counties operating this program showed a significant drop in the income generated through fines. It was therefore necessary for the state to approve the program.

The problem for the courts was the unequal treatment of offenders depending on where they were stopped and accused of an offense. If they were unlucky, they were in a county not running the diversion program. They would therefore face the full wrath of local magistrates and judges who were determined to deter all local drivers into obeying the law of the road. But if they were lucky, they could essentially avoid punishment by going down the education route. Except there’s been no evidence since this program was introduced that driving standards have improved. Hence, the Minnesota District Court has just issued a permanent injunction ordering the program to cease in the dozen or so counties currently running it. All the counties have indicated their intention to stop immediately.

Lawmakers like State Representative Steve Drazkowski (R) now say there will be new legislation to prevent counties from benefitting from a diversion program. Yes, here comes the rub. The politicians in the counties may claim safe driving as their motive but, when you add together all the $125 fees they collected for the courses run by local centers, this looks like financial diversion to the benefit of county citizens. Shame on you, Minnesota counties for so blatantly taking the state’s money for so long without the state auditor noticing.

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