The Light Was Pink, Officer!

In defense of a new Massachusetts law forcing people to pay for their own traffic hearings


Who among us, upon receiving a traffic ticket, hasn't shaken an angry fist at the sky (ideally after the police officer has left the scene) and cried "I'm going to contest this ticket." The gesture is bracing after the degrading scene of being pulled over for exceeding the speed limit by a measly 11 mph—"Do you know how fast you were going, ma'am?"—or zipping through a pinkish light. The intent to challenge gives the person left clutching a ticket a sense of purpose. Justice can and will be restored. It's the American way. All it will take is some sticktoitiveness (a real word, by the way).

But things took a turn for quarrelsome Massachusetts residents last week, when Gov. Deval Patrick signed a bill into law allowing the Commonwealth to charge a $25 fee for each traffic hearing. This means that if you challenge a ticket in Massachusetts and win, you still owe The Man the price of two large bacon cheeseburger pizzas from Domino's. Somehow, the notion that justice now demands sticktoitiveness and $25 has a less appealing ring to it.

Vanishingly few of those who proclaim their intentions to fight their traffic ticket actually do it, of course. In our hearts, we traffic violators often know that the policeman is right when he says we were going 66 in a 55 mph zone. Also, we are lazy. But those who do schlep down to the courthouse for a hearing are American heroes, fighting for everyone who has ever gotten screwed by a twitchy red light camera, a broken parking meter, or a cop trying to wrap up a ticket quota.

So is charging for a hearing unfair? Well, not entirely. People have always borne costs for their traffic hearings. Right now, most people pay in time off from work, the cost of travel, and perhaps even the cost of parking at the courthouse. Appeals in Massachusetts have long cost $20 if you want to upgrade from a clerk magistrate to a gen-u-ine judge. Everyone pays for automobile-related services indirectly through things like fees for vehicle tags and inspections.

But the same people who hand over 5.3 percent of their income to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in taxes every year balk at a $25 fee for service. Why? Because it feel like you're paying twice. Once in taxes, and again in fees. Three times, really, if you think the cost of administering a ticket is already built into the ticket.

In the end, money pouring into the state's coffers is fungible. The state of California has already taken the idea of tacking fees onto parking tickets to impressive heights. In the Golden State, a ticket for running a red light can include a $20 court security fee to keep the state's courtrooms safe—even if the offender never sets foot in a courtroom—and an additional $35 fee to be paid upon conviction. The Redding Record Searchlight reports on one case where a speeding ticket for going 39 mph in a 25 mph zone netted a fine of $386, including a $120 processing fee. All of which may seem ridiculous.

But charging a fee for a service means that people will think twice about using it. Think toll roads and medical co-pays here. The Massachusetts law isn't governed by the loser pays principle, however, an oversight that should be remedied. If Massachusetts has falsely accused someone of committing a crime, then Massachusetts should foot the bill. But those who are inclined to challenge tickets just for the heck of it should pay for their afternoon's amusement in the halls of the courthouse. Charging a fee for ticket challenges means that the more meaningful challenges are likely to get through, while the cris de coeur remain confined to the interiors of our sedans.

Litigation, they say, is the national pastime, but contesting traffic tickets is the poor man's version of that pricey sport. And there is something pleasing—and pleasingly American—about marching into the courthouse (OK, more likely to be a lowly clerk's office), ticket in hand, indignation at the ready. I once challenged a jaywalking ticket, just to see what would happen. My defense was "Really!? Jaywalking? Seriously?" I wasted everyone's time, and lost. My fine increased. Fair enough.

Katherine Mangu-Ward is an associate editor at Reason magazine.