My morning at magistrate court

Paying traffic fines really chaps my ass. I got pulled over about six weeks ago for driving without my seat belt on. Just as you’d expect, a few days prior I’d taken all my car documents out for some reason, so I also got a ticket for not having insurance. I brought that to court and had that charge dismissed, but I still got slapped with the fine and fees for the seat belt violation. The breakdown is a great example of local government in action:

Automation fee $10
Since none of my transaction was automated, I can’t imagine what this is for.

Mag[istrate] Facilities fee $10
While I don’t like the idea of any of this, at least it was actually in magistrate court. However unwillingly, I did sort of use the facilities. I don’t think I got ten dollars’ worth out of the fountain, but maybe the water is extra expensive there.

Jury and Witness fee $5
This was a pretty simple victim-and-clerk transaction, without judge, jury, or witnesses, so who knows why I had to pay this.

Correction fee $20
So generic that it’s hard to say anything about.

Traffic Safety fee $3
The only thing I got pulled over for was not having a seat belt on. Not reckless driving, not running red lights--basically, nothing unsafe except possibly for myself.

Judicial Education fee $3
Is the judge taking night classes? Is this for the sack lunches for Take Your Child to Court day?

DV Treatment fee $5
In this case, “DV” is for domestic violence, a practice I’ve never engaged in, and one that’s not in any way related to traffic either.

Brain Injury fee $5
This is my favorite one. The state trooper harasses me and makes me late for work over something that I should be allowed to do, and then the county makes me pay for it.

Fine $25
At long last, here we come to the punishment, a fine amounting to 29% of the take they demanded before I could leave.

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Ah, the wonders of public finance!

Automation fee? I suspect the courts have installed computers, and somehow need to defray those costs. Facilities fee? Need to defray the cost of court (and other?) facilities. Magistrate fee? Not sure; paying the magistrate’s salary, I guess. Etc., etc.

It’s fair to ask if the court system really needs computers, facilities, magistrates, etc. And even with respect to things the court system needs, it’s fair to ask whether the court system overpaid for them. But I don’t understand R. McElroy to be making these objections.

Rather, I understand R. McElroy to be griping that this is a DAMN STUPID WAY to defray the cost of running a court system. And he (she?) would be right.

So how did we end up with this stupid system? After all, the benefits of a court system are really felt by all of society, regardless of whether you ever get a ticket. (Indeed, I expect R. McElroy is feeling that his net benefit from the courts system is a little less than other people’s. He gets no more benefits than anyone else, but he has had to bear a cost that not everybody else does: he got a ticket.)

How do we pay for things that benefit society generally? TAXES, spread broadly.

But we hate taxes.

So instead we institute back-door taxes which we assess narrowly on segments of the population we expect to be so disorganized that they can’t fight back. Much better, right?

It’s a stupid, corrosive abuse of public finance. And it’s fueled by the public outcry against taxes.

For what it’s worth, Steven Landsburg has a post about the vastly more abusive means by which society allocates the costs of its courts system. It’s a disgrace.

Times are tough for the state, so you have to do your part.

The point of a seatbelt violation ticket is to generate revenue and provide probable cause for the traffic stop. If they found a small bit of marijuana in your car during said stop they would include that in the propaganda statistics they use to pass more laws. If your safety were so important, they would be giving you informational pamphlets on the dangers your apparent lack of self-preservation.

The majority of traffic stops are for revenue generation purposes. In Georgia, they have a "super-speeder" law that adds to the fine for going a certain amount over the artificially low speed limit (55 on the interstate in the city, the average speed of travel is closer to 65). While speeding may be frowned upon, there has been no regulation on automakers to inhibit it (unlike tobacco companies that can't "market to kids" with "flavored" cigarettes).

I would argue that the courts do less a job of benefiting society as a whole than perpetuating their own power. In my own forays with the "justice system" I have come to find that if you pay them on time, they don't really care what you do or if you become a productive member of society. If you don't pay them, they put you in jail where they still get their money (from taxpayers).

In "The Big Lebowski" when the Dude's car got stolen, and the officer laughed about finding out who stole it, there is a nugget of wisdom to take from it. They don't get directly paid by recovering lost property or convicting violent criminals, they get good press. The guy without a seatbelt is the real target because they get to keep him in line.

If I were you I would dispute the charges, as publicly as possible, because a little scrutiny would go a long way toward getting some accountability. The news stations in Cruces might enjoy covering how non-violent citizens are being fleeced. They may not though because they could be on the take.