Georgia traffic courts taking a bite out of tax refunds

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 intercept the state income tax refunds of people who haven't paid traffic tickets or other court fines. The court gets the money owed, while the scofflaw gets a smaller tax refund.

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. Among them are municipal courts in Atlanta, Marietta, East Point and Riverdale, as well as the State Court of Fulton County.

The Atlanta court had its first “intercept” success last week, Judge Gary E. Jackson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. 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.

No estimate was available Monday of how much courts might recover under the program.

But 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.”

Other courts taking part in the initial pilot project are Athens-Clarke County Municipal Court, Bibb County Superior Court, Conyers Municipal Court, Dalton Municipal Court, Ludowici Municipal Court and Millen Municipal Court.