Unpaid state fines making penalties pointless for many


A new legislative report shows the severity of fines imposed by Tennessee courts has been eroded by inflation over the past 22 years, but some involved in the process say that really doesn’t make much difference.

“I’m not sure the amount of the fine is important anymore,” said Knox County District Attorney General Randy Nichols. “What difference does it make if the fine is $50 or $100 if it’s not going to be paid anyway?”

A law passed by the General Assembly earlier this year calls for revoking the driver’s license of anyone who does not pay his or her fines and court costs, starting next year. Whether that helps or hurts the situation is the subject of some debate.

But as things stand now, Nichols said, the fines imposed for convictions on charges ranging from traffic offenses to robberies are becoming increasingly meaningless. Data collected by the Legislature’s Fiscal Review Committee would appear to support that assertion.

In estimating the impact of the license revocation legislation, the committee staff reported that, based on 2009 figures, there were 328,000 persons statewide ordered to pay fines and court costs and that about 75 percent, or 246,000, did not pay them. Officials involved say the non-payment level has, if anything,, probably increased since then because of economic conditions.

In a new report released last week, the committee staff reviewed the impact of inflation on fines. The fine for most offenses were established by law in 1989, the year that the state’s criminal code was completely overhauled and updated.

For example, the $50 fine established for a Class C misdemeanor, the mildest penalty category, would now be $88 if adjusted for inflation based on the Consumer Price Index. The $2,500 fine established for Class A misdemeanors, which would include drunken driving and other serious traffic offenses, would now be $4,396.

The report divides felonies into two categories — “corporate felonies” where the fine is often the primary punishment and individual felonies.

Money laundering, for example, would be a Class B corporate felony with the fine set at a maximum of $300,000 that, if adjusted for inflation, would now be $527,555. For Class B individual felonies, which would include crimes such as aggravated robbery and sexual battery, the established maximum fine is $25,000, which would be $43,963.

The license revocation law was sponsored by Rep. Jim Gotto, R-Nashville, and Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, at the initial urging of Tommy Bradley, chief deputy criminal court clerk for Davidson County.

Bradley reviewed eight years worth of Davidson County data — 2002 through 2010 — and found that $361 million in fines and court costs were assessed during the period, but only $71 million was paid. He estimates that the total unpaid fines for the state’s “big four” counties – Knox, Davidson, Shelby and Hamilton counties – would exceed $1 billion for the period.

In Knox County, $12.7 million in fines and costs were imposed in General Sessions and Criminal Court during the 2010-11 fiscal year, according to figures provided by Chief Deputy Criminal Court Clerk Janice Norman. Of that, $9.27 million, or about 74 percent, has not been paid.

The new law applies only to convictions that come after it took effect on July 1, not to existing fines. Bradley and Norman said defendants are now being told about the law, but the real impact will likely be unknown until about this time next year when those with unpaid fines start getting license revocation notices.

In legislative debate, critics contended the law could have the opposite effect of what is intended. Rep. Joe Armstrong, D-Knoxville, said people losing their license would be unable to get to their jobs and thus even less likely to pay their fines.

He also said the law will “turn the Department of Safety into a collection agency” and add to the defendant’s debt because the department charges a $65 fee for reinstatement of a license after revocation.

Bradley said those are valid points, and “I’m open to anybody who’s got a better solution.” But none has been proposed, he said, and the situation has continued to worsen.

State law provides for waiver of fines and costs for persons who are indigent and cannot pay. That has not occurred in the case of the $290 million in unpaid fines in Davidson County.

“We’ve got all this money sitting on the books. It should be waived or paid,” he said and the new law will hopefully make some difference.

He and Norman said persons with offenses already subject to losing a driver’s license — major traffic offenses such as DUI, for example — have been more likely to pay their fines than the vast majority of offenders who were not subject to revocation until the new law took effect.

In Davidson County, Bradley said his office’s policy is to take no action toward license revocation for anyone willing to pay at least $15 per month. In Knox County, Norman said a similar payment program is available with a minimum payment of $25 per month.

Nichols said that, as a practical matter, the typical defendant serving an eight-year prison sentence is not going to be able to pay a fine, and “there are a lot of poor people out there who just can’t pay.” And defendants cannot be jailed simply because they cannot pay a fine.

Ideally, Nichols said, “everybody ought to have to pay something” even if it’s a small amount based on individual ability.

“Just to assess the fine and then forget it I don’t think is right,” he said.