The Painful Economics of Traffic Court

Such a small thing as a traffic ticket, even a couple of parking tickets, can wreak terrible financial hardship for some families in today’s economy. That was the lesson I learned from sitting for 2 1/2 hours in traffic court today, watching the mini-dramas unfold.

Say you get fined $500 and can’t pay the fine, it mounts up. Pretty soon there is a warrant for your arrest, you lose your license, and now you owe more than $1,000. If you have lost your job, where do you get the money? The court can’t, or doesn’t care. Pay or lose your license.

What could you do that would amount to nearly $500? Merely fail to yield to a pedestrian in the crosswalk. A Manhattan resident who was delivering her daughter to Princeton University did that, in a moment of confusion. The fine was $250 and a point on her license. To avoid the point, she could pay a “surcharge” of $156 plus $33 in court costs for a total of $439. Fortunately this woman could afford it.

Others were not so fortunate. One speeding ticket, including the surcharge, cost $469. About half the people claimed they couldn’t pay their fine, and bleeding heart liberal that I am, I believed them. The response from the court: “Make some phone calls today. Owe someone other than this court.”

I don’t blame the judge or the court officials. They are doing their job. Nor the police officers. But such high fines result in just another case of The Rich Get Richer, the Poor Get Poorer. Delay in paying your fine because you can’t pay your rent, because you don’t have a job, and it doubles, then triples.

I realize the general lesson is, drive very. very, very carefully. Don’t get a ticket. But the specific lesson for me is, avoid Nassau Street like the plague. If I should fail to see a pedestrian in the crosswalk, perhaps because another pedestrian is darting out in front of me who is NOT in the crosswalk — well, I wouldn’t be happy paying $250 to $439. I’ll stay on Wiggins and Hamilton where pedestrians don’t lurk behind parked cars.

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