State officials seek solution for unpaid traffic fines

DOVER — Last summer the General Assembly changed the long-standing practice of suspending a driver’s license for unpaid traffic tickets.

Supporters of the change had argued that license suspensions unfairly punished those who couldn’t afford to pay the fines and, absent a license to drive, they wouldn’t be able to get to work or to their kids’ schools.

Jennifer Cohan

Jennifer Cohan

While the new proposal was passed with little opposition, it created other problems: About 42,200 red-light tickets, for instance, were issued in 2014. Of those, the fines for about one-third haven’t been paid by the offenders — a significant amount of revenue for the state government.

The threat to suspend drivers’ licenses had represented a “hammer” the state could use to persuade those violators to pay up, noted Marianne Kennedy, administrator for the state’s Justice of the Peace Courts.
But, not now.

To solve these new issues of enforcement the Traffic Fines Working Group was created. Its members met for the first time Wednesday.

The goal is to provide recommendations to the legislature and the governor on how collections can be improved given the changes to the law.

Although there was some debate over the bill that ended license suspension, Secretary of Transportation Jennifer Cohan reiterated the group is not intending to discuss its merits.

“We really wanted to make sure that we’re opening Delawareans to work and not throwing hurdles up so that they would not be able to work, and some of these minor traffic fines were doing just that,” Ms. Cohan said.

Those tickets are more expensive than they may appear at first. Surcharges to support several state funds nearly double the cost of a red-light violation from the base fine of $75 to a total of $137.50.

After three notices for a red light ticket, during which fines increase from $137.50 to $167.50, the violation becomes delinquent. In the past, that is when it would be handed over to the state’s collection agency. For red light violations the agent is Linebarger, Goggan, Blair and Sampson LLP.

For toll violations, the fine total is about $29, with slight variations based on the original toll amount. After two notices, the fee is increased to $66.50. Law Enforcement Systems is responsible for collecting the unpaid money.

Ms. Kennedy expressed concerns that without the threat of imminent suspension, drivers will have less incentive to pay their fines in a timely manner. Thus, many won’t.

The state will apply registration holds, but as cars need be renewed only every few years, an individual could go years with unpaid fines and no real punishment. Those tickets generate several million dollars and without a strong enforcement mechanism, Delaware could see a loss of revenue.

There’s also a potentially bigger impact, Ms. Kennedy said.

“We expect people to follow the law and do what they’re supposed to do and to be responsive to court orders, and if they’re not it degrades the whole system and our ability to be able to enforce the laws of the state,” she said.

A motorist who waits to address his or her fine until a vehicle needs to be registered years down the road could then contest the ticket and, with a significant amount of time having elapsed, be almost certain to win the challenge.

Division of Motor Vehicles Director Scott Vien argued the hammer is simply being moved back, but others seemed to disagree.

Peggy Bell, executive director of the Delaware Criminal Justice Information System, proposed allowing for license suspension after several years; James Tull, a judge with the Justice of the Peace Courts, suggested increasing fines further if they are not paid within a few months, thus providing a “carrot” to entice violators to settle their debts early.

The group will meet several times over the next three months to try to find a solution it can recommend to the General Assembly.

“Everyone has a lot of homework to do,” Ms. Cohan said.

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