Or, how “the Man” puts a gun to your head while he picks your pocket, just to keep you down.
During a busy week in July, when I was planning to renew my expired automobile registration, but hadn’t had time yet, I got pulled over by a Travis County sheriff’s deputy. I hadn’t done anything amiss, but he spotted my expired sticker and decided he had no real criminals to pursue, so he pulled me over. In an ironic turn of events, I had just put my new insurance card in the car, but to my chagrin I discovered that the new card didn’t take effect until the start of the next month — the day after I got pulled over — and without the old card I had thrown away I couldn’t prove I was insured to his rather picky satisfaction. It was the first time I had ever received a ticket from the county, and I was not yet aware that chiseling and nitpicking are county policy. So the end result was a ticket for expired registration and another for “failure to maintain financial responsibility” — a far more sweeping condemnation than just not having an insurance card in my car.
The fines for these two tickets added up to $330, but theoretically I could reduce the costs by renewing my registration within the next 10 days and providing proof of insurance — which would be that same card that wasn’t good enough for the deputy, but would be just fine a week later. As it was explained to me, this would reduce my cost to the $10 fee for renewing the registration, plus $15 in court fees and nothing else. So, like a good little citizen I went and renewed my registration and then mailed my registration receipt, a copy of my insurance card, and a check for $25 to the court as instructed on my copy of the ticket. I mailed all of this the day after getting my ticket, giving it 9 days to travel by U.S. mail to the County Clerk’s office halfway across town.
I happily went about my business for the next two months assuming everything had been taken care of. Then I got a letter from the local Justice of the Peace’s office, which included my various papers and my $25 check along with a letter notifying that since I had failed to appear for my court date for the ticket — a date I had never been notified of — I now owed not only the original $330 but an additional $260 for two counts of “failure to appear”, all of this apparently because my payment and paperwork had failed to reach them by the 10 day deadline, despite being mailed with more than a week to get there. Of course, I’d never been notified that they had not received the payment and paperwork or that there was a court date or that the whole business was anything other than resolved.
Somewhat put out by this situation, I called the office of the Justice of the Peace who was handling the ticket and asked them what I needed to do to resolve the situation at this point. They weren’t exactly understanding and told me that I had only one option. I would have to go before a judge and explain my situation and throw myself on the mercy of the court. In addition, just to see a judge I would have to put up $600 in bond money which they would hold until the court date.
I bit the bullet and went in to the JP’s court to post my bond, at which point they informed me that even though I had cash to pay it, they insisted on separate money orders for each ticket, which only cost $3, but then the court charged me an additional $10 fee for each money order given to them. How can they insist on a money order and then charge a penalty for giving them what they ask for? For that matter, whatever happened to “legal tender for all debts, public and private” on the back of our money? Aren’t they required by federal law to accept cash? Everyone else is.
I paid my $630. And then, much to my surprise, was told my court date would be six months away. Six months during which they would hold on to my money, earn interest on it, and do absolutely nothing for me. That seemed like a hell of a long time for them to hold my money, even if I would eventually get all but the $30 in gratuitous fines back in court.
Six months later, I showed up at the JP’s court for the second time, paperwork in hand, eager to see a judge, get the situation resolved, and get back my money. My first surprise on this visit was when I was informed right off that there was no way I could see the actual judge on my appointed court date which had been set six months before. Apparently the court was overbooked and my reservation had no meaning.
I could either see a junior DA and adjudicate the matter, or I could put off my court date for several more months and still have no guarantee of seeing an actual judge. The catch was that only a judge could waive the “failure to appear” fines. With the DA I could get immediate service but would only be able to get the penalties on the actual tickets waived. Ultimately, I decided it was worth $230 not to have to wait any longer.
So I sat down with an officious young lady in a cheap Steinmart suit and began filling out paperwork. She accepted my proof of insurance and auto registration paperwork and waived those fines, except for $30 in court costs on each ticket and the basic fine on the expired registration. In the end my total cost for the actual tickets ended up being $130. Add to that the $230 for the failure to appear charges and the total was $360. But wait, then there were the “collection” fees. Even though no collection agency ever contacted me, I had to pay $30 on each ticket as their fee despite the fact that Texas state law limits collection fees to a maximum of $27.50. The total ended up being $420.
As I headed to the cashier, I had the silly notion in my mind that since they had a cashier there to collect fees, they’d just deduct the $420 from my $600 bond and give me back the difference or at the very least mail it to me. How naive I was. In fact, they got to hold my bond money even longer and I had to pay them the additional $420 up front and then wait another month to get the bond money back by mail.
Why on earth can’t they take the fines out of the bond money on the spot? I expected to have to wait to get my bond money back, but the money is in their coffers at no risk and in no question. Can’t they trust their court clerks to do a little simple math and just apply the money from the bond to my fines and mail me the rest? Well, maybe not, because while sitting waiting to get my paperwork back I discovered that the clerk had added the fines and fees up wrong — in my favor, ironically — and I had to give the paperwork back to her so she could add it all up again.
All in all, a time-consuming, expensive hassle for me, but something irritating which I could deal with. On the other hand, imagine someone who had to live on a limited or fixed income in this same situation. They could hardly afford to leave that $600 bond — likely more than a month’s rent or three car payments — tied up for six months. And then they’d be expected to pay an additional $420 in fines and fees and wait over a month for the county treasurer to cut a check to send their bond money back, leaving them out over $1000 for an extended period. That’s enough money to bring a person who lives paycheck-to-paycheck to the brink of disaster or push them over the edge.
Is the lesson of this to be a good little boy and make sure you renew your car registration and follow up to make sure the court got your check? Or is it that the greed of local government, which substantially underwrites its costs with exorbitant fees for traffic fines, is out of control? Or maybe I’m just a cranky middle-aged dude who should pay his fines and be glad government isn’t oppressing him even more? Better that than a granny on Social Security who loses her apartment and ends up on the street because she gets a ticket.
But you know, in the end I don’t mind the fines I paid nearly as much as the time wasted pointlessly and the crushing, inhumane, and unresponsively bureaucratic nature of the experience. When your government gives you worse customer service than the returns desk at Wal-Mart something is seriously wrong.