It was a battle cry that resonated in DeKalb County: Traffic courts should focus on justice, not on raising money.
So last year, amid residents’ allegations that the county’s Recorders Court was gouging drivers with high fines and jailing those who couldn’t pay, the government responded. It abolished the court, lowered fines and wiped out a $25 fee automatically added to each ticket for undefined “court costs.”
The victory seemed complete. But last month, residents lost ground when, in response to a projected $7 million revenue drop, the fee for court costs was reinstated.
With DeKalb on track to issue about 90,000 tickets this year, the fee could raise roughly $2.25 million annually.
Judges and legislators said they never intended for DeKalb’s court costs fee to be eliminated along with Recorders Court.
“Nobody’s happy about having to pay more money, but I want people to understand that the way we operate is designed for the public benefit and not to harm them,” said Traffic Division Judge Brian Ross. “It’s not about raising money. It’s about keeping the roads and the public safe.”
Even with the fee, traffic tickets cost less than they did. Traffic Division of State Court last year reduced the cost of fines for many violations, from speeding to aggressive driving.
“We were intentionally reducing the fines, but we weren’t intentionally reducing the court costs,” said DeKalb State Court Judge Wayne Purdom, who worked on revising fines when the Traffic Division started operating. “The county budget is already hurting some from the reductions.”
DeKalb’s lawmakers at the Georgia General Assembly sought the measure that restored the $25 fee, House Bill 1116, which took effect July 1. The legislation also restored a $50 fee for people who fail to appear for a scheduled court appearance.
“It was a technical error that needed to be corrected,” said Rep. Mary Margaret Oliver, D-Decatur, the bill’s sponsor. “There’s a fair criticism that our fines are too high, and we want to be extra careful that they’re not used as a revenue source.”
Not every Atlanta-area traffic court charges court costs.
Unlike DeKalb, counties such as Clayton, Cobb and Gwinnett don’t require court cost fees on every traffic ticket. But Fulton County does inflict a $50 court cost fee on every traffic ticket, subject to judges’ discretion.
Aside from the lower fines and lost fees, there’s another reason traffic court isn’t raising as much money for county government.
The number of citations issued by police has been steadily declining in recent years from a high of more than 201,000 in 2011, according to State Court figures. DeKalb’s police force has been shrinking and writing fewer tickets as police departments in the recently founded cities of Brookhaven and Dunwoody have grown.
Still, drivers weren’t pleased outside DeKalb’s traffic court this week when they found out their tickets cost more than the base fine.
In addition to the court fee, they were charged state fees for indigent defense, driver’s ed, prosecutor training and more. Fees often increase the cost of a traffic ticket in DeKalb by around 40 percent.
“There shouldn’t be all these fees on top of the ticket amount,” said Jacqueline Swope after paying $274.70 for making an improper left turn. “That’s what I was complaining about in court.”
Alexiana Webster said it wasn’t fair for the court to charge so much more in fees on top of the fine. Like Swope, her ticket totaled $274.70 — with $107.70 of that amount in fees — for following too closely.
“It’s just ridiculous,” she said. “It was way too much.”
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