oos E-Newsletter #161 – Ticket Amnesty Schemes: Misguided and Perpetual


Policymakers love to use amnesty programs to demonstrate their magnanimity toward perceived rule-breakers or, more likely, to encourage them to fork over some of what they owe. Typical amnesty programs target things like delinquent taxes, overdue library fines and of course traffic enforcement fines.

Traffic ticket amnesty programs are widespread and take many shapes. California kicked off its most recent program in January by offering a 50 percent discount on old, unpaid tickets. News accounts have hyped the program as a “win-win” for drivers and the state. Yet, the program is expected to reduce outstanding traffic fines by only two percent.

Washington D.C. just wrapped up a program that waived penalty fees if drivers paid the outstanding amounts of their original fines. But even as the District threatened to turn its in-house collections agency (ominously known as the Central Collection Unit) loose on non-payers, the program barely made a dent in the District’s backlog of unpaid traffic fines.

And Texas completed an amnesty program last year for drivers hit with surcharges from the state’s Driver Responsibility Program. By paying pennies on the dollar, drivers could settle up and get their licenses reinstated. Despite the favorable terms, only 14 percent of the more than 700,000 eligible drivers took advantage.

Why do people resist such schemes? Maybe they simply ignore them, or maybe they understand the inherent unfairness that permeates the system and refuse to support it, even though they end up benefiting from the amnesty. That unfairness extends to the amnesty programs themselves because they exclude drivers who have dutifully paid their fines on-time.

These drivers may not be so responsive the next time, banking on another amnesty to bail them out. (This phenomenon is akin to the moral hazard associated with the large-scale bank bailouts of a few years back.) And therein lies the problem. Amnesties can exacerbate the problem they’re trying to fix. And that leads to more amnesties.

We’re not discouraging drivers from participating in amnesty programs. If they can clean up their driving records and catch a financial break, so much the better. But amnesties are no “win-win.” They are a symptom of a broken traffic enforcement system. They will never restore justice for traffic defendants. For that, we would need a system based on the following principles taken from the oos’s Motorist Bill of Rights:

  • Traffic laws based on sound engineering and public consensus
  • Fair and consistent enforcement not motivated by revenue generation
  • Reasonable fines/penalties free of surcharges, fees and taxes
  • Guarantees that traffic revenue will be used solely for roadway improvements
  • Court systems that protect the due-process rights of traffic defendants

As a result, more drivers would stand up for themselves in court and receive more equitable outcomes. This would ultimately negate the need for further government-sponsored carrots and sticks. ♦

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