Fee hike adds sting to traffic tickets

Fee hike adds sting to traffic tickets

June 25th, 2011 By Brandon Gee/The Tennessean in News

Tennesseans may pay up to $70 more on traffic tickets when a new state law takes effect a week from today.

The law tacks a $13.75 fee on each traffic violation. Officers are allowed to cite drivers for as many as five violations on a single ticket, Davidson County Circuit Court Clerk Ricky Rooker said. If you get a ticket for both speeding and an illegal lane change, for example, you would pay an extra $27.50, and so on, up to a maximum of $68.75 for a five-violation ticket.

Proceeds will be turned over to the state and help pay for the crime lab services TBI provides to law enforcement agencies in Tennessee.

Sen. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, was a sponsor of the legislation and said failure to pass it could have led to massive TBI layoffs, new fees charged to cash-strapped local governments or substantial delays in the processing of evidence.

TBI spokeswoman Kristin Helm said that when TBI was tasked with making $4 million in budget cuts last year, it looked for additional revenues to avoid laying off 58 crime lab agents. TBI's total budget is about $64 million, with $20 million going toward its three crime labs.

TBI initially approached law enforcement agencies and said it was considering charging them $20 for each piece of evidence submitted for examination and $100 for DNA tests.

Citing their own budget woes, the local governments pushed back and turned for help to the Tennessee Municipal League, which came up with the fee on traffic violations as an alternative.

Ashley Gittens, who stopped by the Davidson County Traffic Violations Bureau to pay a $150 speeding ticket, was discouraged to learn about the new fee but said fear of paying it might make her a more cautious driver.

"It's already expensive, and I just disagree completely," she said. "It will reduce speeding slightly, I guess."

Helm said the TBI crime labs performed 285,000 tests on 85,000 pieces of evidence last year.

Without the additional funding, "a large portion of the state crime lab would have been shut down, no longer processing evidence for the judicial system," Helm said.

Helm said the new traffic violation fee will cover about half of TBI's $4 million shortfall. The other half is being covered by increasing the drug and alcohol testing fees that defendants in drunken-driving and other smaller cases pay from $100 to $250. Helm said that because these defendants are not sent to prison, they have the means to pay the increased fine.

Shutting down part of the crime labs wasn't considered an option for Tennessee law enforcement agencies "at a time when local police departments are becoming increasingly dependent upon forensic evidence to solve cases," Tennessee Municipal League spokeswoman Carole Graves said.

Helm said it wouldn't have been feasible to fine those convicted of murder, rape, robbery and other crimes that involve forensic evidence to cover the shortfall because those individuals are sent to jail and have no means to pay their court fees.

Rex Barton, a police consultant with the University of Tennessee Municipal Technical Advisory Service who worked on the proposal, said it also makes sense because there already exists a $13.75 state litigation tax charged to defendants who are found guilty or pay a fine. Those who were paying their parking tickets instead of contesting them in court weren't paying that tax in some cities, so Barton said adding a fee of an equal amount in those instances levels the playing field.

Metro police spokesman Don Aaron said the department relies heavily on TBI to analyze evidence. But that will change next year when the department builds its own lab to have more control over the speed and prioritization of evidence analysis.

"The goal is to have a self-sufficient crime lab that can handle DNA testing as well as other analyses," Aaron said. "Because every law enforcement agency in Tennessee utilizes the TBI lab services, this department decided to create its own lab to set the priority for cases. ... They do excellent work, but they do it for the entire state."

The fee applies only to people who choose not to contest their tickets and pay the fine before the court date or compliance date.