published Sunday, June 12th, 2011

Bill would punish those owing criminal court fine

NASHVILLE — For years, thousands of Tennesseans found guilty of various crimes have gotten away with not paying fines, court costs and litigation taxes. One estimate pegs the resulting revenue loss to state and local governments at $1 billion or more.

But lawmakers hope the free ride is coming to a screeching halt under legislation passed in May by the General Assembly.

The bill requires the state Safety Department to revoke a person’s driver license if he or she is more than 12 months past due in paying penalties.

Judges can extend payment deadlines for six months in hardship cases. If necessary, delinquent drivers can pay in installments if they can’t swing the average $500 in litigation taxes, court costs and fines in one fell swoop.

The bill takes effect July 2. Because it’s not retroactive, it won’t apply to old fines.

Yvette Martinez, a spokeswoman for Gov. Bill Haslam, said the governor will “review this bill as he does all the bills that come to his desk, but we expect that he’ll sign it.”’

House sponsor Rep. Jim Gotto, R-Hermitage, said he brought the bill because “it’s been a long-known fact that there’s a lot of money across the state owed by criminals who have been convicted and don’t pay their court costs.

“One of the reasons for that is that ... there was nothing to punish them with, to give them any incentive to pay,” Gotto said.

Court clerks, including Hamilton County Criminal Court Clerk Gwen Tidwell, are hailing its passage.

“I’m thrilled to death with it,” said Tidwell, estimating Hamilton County is losing millions of dollars in unpaid fees, costs and fines.

Despite such moves as garnisheeing the wages and even the bank accounts of those not paying fines, “we just keep getting deeper in the hole,” Tidwell said.

“Word gets around real quick that there’s no real stick to making them pay. ... You can’t put people back in jail for failure to pay their costs.”

Tennessee has used the threat of taking away driver’s licenses to encourage behavior in areas from making child-support payments to staying in high school.

Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, an attorney, voted against the measure.

“I certainly want every person to pay court costs — it’s only fair to all the citizens,” Berke said. “But when we take away a driver’s license for someone who doesn’t pay the cost, that means, in effect, we may be taking away his or her job and ability to pay all debts that person owes.

“That means a landlord is not going to get paid, a car note is not going to get met and there’s a huge ramification for that.”

The House and Senate debates turned on similar issues.

One of the bill’s major selling points was that it is a sure-fire revenue generator in tight budget times for a GOP-run legislature where no general tax increase was going to pass.

Boosting revenues

A 2008 survey conducted by the General Assembly’s Fiscal Review Committee staff looked at criminal case collections in counties willing or able to share data. It found that in 2007, Hamilton County collected 35 percent, or $5.1 million, out of $14.6 million in criminal case assessments. That was down from 44 percent in 2003.

The legislation is expected generate nearly $11.8 million a year for state government and about $10.5 million for local governments, according to Fiscal Review Committee analysts.

The Safety Department said that in 2009, 328,000 committed offenses that the bill could apply to. Of those, an estimated 75 percent, or 246,000, have not paid fines.

The analysis projects that of people who lose driver’s licenses under the bill, 25 percent, or 61,500, will pay their fines and a $65 reinstatement fee to get their licenses back. Another 25 percent will reinstate under a payment plan.

Among the remaining 50 percent, some probably will set up repayment plans but fail to complete them, according to the analysis. The bill also allows some indigent people to have their fines and costs forgiven by a judge.

During Senate Finance Committee debate, Sen. Joe Haynes, D-Nashville, warned that many whose licenses are revoked will continue to drive and have no insurance.

“I don’t know you’re accomplishing what you want,” he said.

But Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, the sponsor, said he thought the installment payment option would offset the concern.

Rep. Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville, complained that the bill “sounds to me like we’re turning the Department of Safety into a collection agency for the courts system.”

Armstrong said that makes sense for traffic-related offenses, but he questioned its application in other areas.

According to its fiscal note, the Safety Department will have to spend an additional $1.35 million, much of it for new personnel, including eight staffers to field calls from drivers who receive a license-suspension notice and 13 examiners to process mail and update records.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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