OPINION | Diversion, education right for traffic offenders

It's been called a blow for Big Government struck by one of the Legislature's most conservative members, and another beneficiary is Big Insurance. The losers may include drivers cited for moving violations in many Minnesota counties, local government coffers and even general traffic safety.

But a Wabasha County district judge this month ordered an end to a county court diversion program that allowed ticketed motorists to pay for and attend safe driving classes, thus avoiding convictions, fines and hikes in their insurance premiums. Wabasha County Sheriff Rodney Bartsh said the program was effective at cutting dangerous driving and crashes, and popular with citizens to boot.

The fly in the ointment was the pretty clear lack of authorization for such programs under state law. State auditors had been pointing this out for years, but dozens of cities and counties had conducted them for more than a decade without anyone acting to apply the kibosh.

Enter, stage right wing, Rep. Steve Drazkowski of Mazeppa and two of his allies on the Wabasha County Board, who engaged prominent conservative lawyer Erick Kardaal last year to seek redress via judicial activism. Judge James Fabian permanently enjoined the Wabasha County program on Jan. 6, and many other jurisdictions quickly suspended theirs.

Since then, Drazkowski has announced plans for legislation to ban all the classes for good, which would vie with bills introduced last year by progressive legislators Sen. Matt Schmit of Red Wing and Rep. Debra Hilstrom of Brooklyn Center to authorize them.

Hats off to Jon Collins of MPR News for digging up this story months ago.

In the wake of the court order, Kardaal told Collins that "the purported violators of traffic laws in Wabasha County were being stopped and offered an illegal alternative to a ticket. They were shaking down people rather than giving them tickets in order to fund their own programs."

Here's how the "shakedown" worked: Instead of paying a fine of at least $127 for a moving violation -- which would go on a state database that auto insurers reference to set rates -- motorists were given a choice of forking over $125 for a two-hour class and keeping clean records. In Wabasha County, more than 4,500 people took that option, paying nearly $500,000 to a county fund that financed the classes as well as traffic safety and enforcement equipment such as snow plows and squad cars. Statewide, the classes raised $1.6 million over three recent years, according to the Star Tribune.

So what's to dislike? When you follow the money, you learn that state collects the lion's share of a fine imposed by a court.

"The tickets never got into court [so] we didn't think the state needed any money out of it," Bartsh told Collins in September. "All of the money is staying here locally and it's helping offset our tax base, which the citizens are thrilled with -- especially once they find out somebody's trying to take it away."

County Attorney James Nordstrom also defended the program. In a formal reply to criticism from the state auditor, he wrote that it was based on "prosecutorial discretion and the county attorney's decision to prefer driver education over in-court prosecution."

None of this is swaying Drazkowski. "We have a small handful of renegade counties with rogue county attorneys and sheriffs that continue to operated in violation of the law," he told the Rochester Post-Bulletin. "It's all about the money for the local government. The public's trust has been violated by this and the law has been violated and the civil rights of those whose dollars were taken have been violated."

His bill would require cities and counties to refund all the money they collected under the programs for the past 11 years. If they missed a Nov. 1 deadline for repayment, their state aid would be cut by double the amount owed. In addition, failure to shut down a program promptly would bring forfeiture of a jurisdiction's right to enforce state laws while local officers take two months of mandated training "on properly and legally enforcing the law."

Phew! If there were something in the lawmaking game like a football penalty for piling on, Draz ought to get at least 15 yards. Fortunately, this ridiculous overkill will never be enacted.

Meanwhile, on the actual public policy merits of driver education diversion versus fines and rising insurance rates, the state Office of Traffic Safety declined to comment this week.

But I will. Despite legitimate concerns that the programs may financially incentivize more traffic stops, Bartsh said citations are down in his county. If safeguards against that kind of local money grab can be crafted, and a reasonable compromise struck with state interests, safe driving classes for minor traffic offenders should be legalized.

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    Conrad deFiebre's picture
    Conrad deFiebre

    Conrad deFiebre is a Transportation Fellow at Minnesota 2020.