NMA E-Newsletter #323: Sacrificing Rights in the Name of Efficiency (and Money)

The NMA’s ever vigilant Michigan contingent sent us this article about a startup company that has made it even easier for the traffic justice system to hoover up your hard-earned money. The company, Court Innovations, has developed a web-based app that lets traffic ticket recipients negotiate court settlements remotely, instead of showing up in court to fight tickets. Here’s how the system works:

  1. You get a traffic ticket
  2. If you’re willing to plead guilty but want to bargain for a lesser charge, you write up an explanation of what happened and submit it through the court’s website.
  3. An adjudicator (likely a city employee) reviews your case and decides your fate; you receive the decision via email or text message.
  4. You can accept the deal and pay online or reject the deal and request a court hearing.

Three jurisdictions in Michigan are currently working the Court Innovations, and company officials say their system will help over-burdened courts process more cases and collect more fines. It also sounds like a way to give motorists the illusion of fighting their tickets when it’s really part of the scheme to separate motorists from their money as efficiently as possible.

Here’s how the scheme works in Michigan and other parts of the country: Speed limits are frequently set lower than engineering requirements dictate (or in Michigan’s case, lower than permitted by law), creating speed traps. Local governments exploit the speed traps by enforcing illegal ticket quotas. Officers then write tickets for a lower speed than what was measured to induce guilty pleas and prompt payments. Drivers who dare to request hearings are often penalized when their tickets are amended back to the higher recorded speed levels.

A variation on the scheme involves changing moving violations to non-moving violations to discourage drivers from challenging a dubious charge in court. The city gets an equal or greater fine (and does not have to share revenue with the state), and the driver’s record remains clean. The Court Innovations approach will only increase these money-making plea deals and allow cities to further leverage their revenue-generating speed traps. (Did we mention the company’s business model relies on getting a cut of the fines collected?)

Court Innovations is a spin-off of the University of Michigan Law School and is the brain child of University of Michigan Law School Professor J.J. Prescott. We have a hard time believing that the U of M Law School doesn’t understand how the traffic justice system works, so we question why such a respected institution would aid and abed a corrupt system. In fact, Executive Director of the NMA Foundation Jim Walker, who lives in Michigan, wrote a letter to the dean of the U of M Law School asking that very question. Here’s an excerpt:

I am writing about a Detroit Free Press article which associates a computer based program marketed by “Court Innovations” with the U of M Law School. I believe this association brings disrepute to one of America’s finest law schools, and should be condemned by it. I think the law school needs to immediately disassociate itself from this program and the for-profit company running it. 

The original idea to reduce court workloads and reduce their costs is admirable.  

The ways and purposes for which this system will usually be used will not be in the cause of justice or the fair application of the law to citizens. Most if not all of its users will have the goal and result of facilitating and streamlining the collection of revenue with predatory traffic laws and enforcement regimens aimed not at traffic safety but at revenue collection. Traffic laws and enforcement procedures such as speed traps that are aimed primarily at revenue instead of safety are wrong one hundred percent of the time.  I believe it is improper for the Law School to be associated in any way. 

The true goal for the users of the “Court Innovations” program will be to further erode our cherished legal principle of the citizen facing their accuser in open court. The true purpose will be to facilitate quick payment of fines and costs, by giving the citizens small breaks to discourage them from mounting challenges to predatory laws and enforcement procedures where they might win. And to prevent the courts from hearing serious challenges to the very validity of those laws and systems.

As another Michigan member points out, if the courts are overworked, it’s because local governments are issuing too many citations in a rush to take money from responsible motorists. He summed up the issue this way:

The first job of the court is justice, not efficiency. “Court efficiency” is another phrase for “losing our rights.” If this software gets into wide use, it will let Michigan cities (and others) take money from citizens with the same greed as in Ferguson, Missouri, but without the inefficient, in-person, court system that led to rioting and shootings. Do we want our courts to be that efficient at denying our rights?

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