Can traffic court grab my tax refund? Yes, it can!

Georgia courts have a new tool for collecting cash: taking a bite out of your tax refund.

A state law enacted in 2014 allows courts to collect unpaid fines from state income tax refunds. So, if you've been a scofflaw when it comes to your traffic tickets or other fines, prepare to get a smaller tax refund than you had hoped.

Eleven Georgia courts are part of a pilot program to test the Tax Refund Intercept Project, as 2015 tax returns come flowing into the Georgia Department of Revenue.

Oct. 20, 2015 - Jonesboro - Officer Perry stops a motorist for having no insurance, a violation flagged by the tag reader. Phillip Perry, shift senior officer and training officer for the Jonesboro police department, goes on traffic patrol with the department's license plate reader equipped patrol car. The license plate reader can scan cars as they pass and run their plates against a government database to check for violations. Within an hour, Perry had written two citations for vehicles without insurance coverage, one for expired registration, and impounded two cars. Most of the department's citations come from the license plate reader. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

Credit: Lois Norder

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Credit: Lois Norder

The Atlanta Municipal Court is among the courts testing the system. Judge Gary E. Jackson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the Atlanta court had its first "intercept" success last week. He said a woman who had failed to pay a $144.50 fine for an expired license ticket filed her tax return last week, and the state Department of Revenue flagged her refund for a deduction.

While some people might not like the idea of their tax refunds being reduced, Jackson said it’s better for most defendants than the alternative.

“It’s a lot less painful than being locked up because you didn’t pay a fine that you agreed to pay, and had the ability to pay," Jackson said. "I do not want to crowd the jail with minor traffic offenders who simply will not pay."

Jackson said the defendant entered a no contest plea in June of 2014 and was placed on probation to give her time to pay the fine. But she didn't pay it off.

The new system includes requirements that are meant to protect people whose tax refunds are targeted. The court must send notices telling people they owe the money and that an unpaid fine could be "intercepted" from a tax refund. That notice must give the person 30 days to clear up the matter with the court.

Once the Department of Revenue flags a tax filer as someone who owes a debt, the person is sent another notice and a chance to register a dispute. Jackson said those safeguards will make sure that the system doesn't deduct money from the wrong person, or from someone who has already paid.

Jackson, who pushed the state to authorize the system, said the Atlanta court has already filed more than 100 requests for tax intercepts.

"We’re not here to raise money," Jackson said. "Our job is public safety. But when there is a sanction in the form of a fine and it’s totally ignored, you cannot tolerate that."

Here are the courts taking part in the initial phase of the pilot project:

Athens-Clarke County Municipal Court, Atlanta Municipal Court, Bibb County Superior Court, Conyers Municipal Court, Dalton Municipal Court, East Point Municipal Court, Fulton County State Court, Ludowici Municipal Court, Marietta Municipal Court, Millen Municipal Court, Riverdale Municipal Court.