Traffic Tickets And Court Costs Can Be Too Much For Some To Handle

Stow Municipal Court [Matt Richmond / ideastream]
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Richard Jones waits outside Stow Municipal Court for his two o’clock appointment in court. He was pulled over March 14th, for making an illegal turn on red. Jones says he saw the No Turn on Red sign, but had just gotten a flat tire on the freeway.

“Well, my situation being what it was I felt like it was ok to get myself to a more safer place, that I could communicate, to get myself the proper attention that I needed," says Jones.

The officer disagreed. And when he ran his license, it came back as suspended.

“I don't have a valid license but I have documentation that says that I was permitted to drive to and from work. I was on my way to an interview so I was supposed to be covered," says Jones.

That’s part of the problem people like Jones face when they lose their license – keeping track of all the requirements to stay a legal driver. He first lost his license back in 2012 for driving under the influence and a hit and run. That was in Akron. To get his license back, he’s had to pay the fines to that court, then the reinstatement fee with the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. He has to have basic insurance known as an SR 22 and if he misses a month, his license is automatically suspended. Since the 2012 infractions, he’s gotten three suspended license tickets.

“And then you owe them, and then you owe here, and there’s gas costs and getting your car out of the impound. It just really, you know, it's hard," says Jones.

In the end, the suspended license charge sticks and he’s hit with a $385 bill. Seventy-five dollars for the suspended license ticket and the rest are court fees, including a $25 fee to get on a payment plan.

“You can’t afford to pay? Oh well, you gotta pay more cause you don’t have the money. That doesn’t make sense," says Jones.

Stow’s not unusual among municipal courts – they all charge fees. Some go to the state, others go to special funds, like one to assist crime victims. Stow Municipal Court is in a new building right off the freeway. It opened in 2009 and handles tickets and low level misdemeanors for 16 towns in Summit County. It’s entirely financed by the fees it collects. There’s an electronic board on the wall that looks like an airport flight tracker. It lists everyone who has a court date, with their time and court assignment. Near the entrance are five teller windows where fees are collected.

Jones leaves court with a small strip of paper laying out what’s expected of him.

"I understand that I am required to return to Stow Municipal Court in one week from today to pay a debt which totals 385 bucks without a job...And will be expected to pay a minimum of 25 percent, which is $95 upon my return," says Jones.

A 2010 study by the Brennan Center for Justice looked at 15 states, including Ohio, and found the widespread use of court fees leading to heavy debt burdens on low-income people. The report recommended tailoring fees to a defendant’s ability to pay and eliminating what the authors called ‘poverty penalties’ – things like collection and payment plan fees.

Jones says he’s struggling to get back to where he was before that first ticket, five years ago.

“You go from being independent to being dependent and it strikes you messes with you," says Jones.

He left court with a bill for $385, a form clearing his license for reinstatement and another allowing him to get his car out of the impound lot, two weeks after it was towed. He says just the ticket and the impound fee alone will be two weeks of pay, at least.

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