Virginia Court Fines in 2015: $429 Million

Source: FY 2015 Fines and Fees Report
Source: FY 2015 Fines and Fees Report

by James A. Bacon

The Legal Aid Justice Center contends that Virginia courts are perpetuating a cycle of poverty by fining people, charging them court costs, and suspending their driver’s licenses. When people lose their licenses, they find it harder to get to work. Many lose their jobs, making it impossible to pay the fines. Unpaid penalties accumulate, which prompts more sanctions by the courts. That pitiable hard-luck cases do occur is undeniable. The question is how widespread the problem is. Are stories like those enumerated in the Justice Center’s class action lawsuit anecdotal, or is the problem systemic?

We know the problem is widespread enough that Richmonder O. Randolph Rollins felt moved to form Drive to Work,  a not-for-profit organization dedicated to help poor and working class citizens work their way out of the court debt-suspended license trap. According to a story I posted last year, the group had more than 600 clients.

Another way to get a handle on the scope of the vicious cycle is to peruse the 2015 Fines and Fees Report, which tallies assessments and collections by court clerks and commonwealth attorneys in Virginia. Last year, court clerks assessed $429 million and collected $251 million in fines and fees. (The report also notes that commonwealth attorneys, who take on delinquent assessments forwarded to them by the courts, collected another $29 million.)

For whatever reason, assessments have been heading steadily higher since 2013 — until last year, when they dropped sharply. Collections also headed higher through 2011, and then began declining. The report offers no explanation for the fall-off in assessments and collections.

Complicating the picture is the fact that practices differ from locality to locality, which means that the impact on local populations vary as well.

To get a sense of that variance, I tallied net collections by general district courts for Fiscal Year 2015. I focused on  general district courts because they account for 62% of all assessments and 75% of all court collections, way more than the circuit courts and juvenile and domestic relations courts (although sometimes the numbers for general district and juvenile/domestic courts are combined for reporting purposes, as noted by asterisk in the table below). It’s no surprise that jurisdictions with large populations see higher levels of fines and fees. To adjust for population size, I calculated fines and fees per capita, using 2015 population estimates.

The variation between localities is striking. In Craig County, collections of fines and fees averaged a mere $11.27 per capita, the lowest rate in the state last year. By contrast, Greensville County/Emporia logged an extraordinary $290 in fines and fees per resident. The mean level (half of localities above, half below) of collections was about $25 per capita.

There may be legitimate reasons for the wide variation. Perhaps the population of some localities is more prone than others to petty crime, traffic offenses, chaotic family lives and/or contempt toward the courts, characteristics that judges tend to punish with fines. But it’s also possible that some court systems view the assessment of fines and fees as a revenue-raising tool, engaging in practices that could be construed as preying upon the poor. I would conjecture that this might be the case among the eight localities where fees-and-fine collections exceed $100 per capita. While this analysis is too quick-and-dirty to prove the point, it does suggest the need for closer investigation.

Data source: 2015 Fines and Fees Report
Data source: 2015 Fines and Fees Report

To view the average fee-and-fine collections for all Virginia localities, click here.

For what it’s worth, the list of top fine collectors is dominated by rural counties, mostly in Southside and Southwestern Virginia. Is it pure coincidence that Greensville County and Emporia are located on Interstate 95? Are local courts and law enforcement targeting out-of-staters for traffic enforcement? Or are they coming down hard on the local population?

The General Assembly’s primary concern is improving the efficiency of collections, as witnessed by studies on the subject and the annual report on fines and fees. As I have noted elsewhere, courts need the ability to impose fines and penalties as a sanction for certain kinds of offenses. Likewise, it is reasonable to ask guilty parties to pay court costs. But courts must be impartial and even-handed administrators of justice, not revenue-raising arms of the state.

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7 responses to “Virginia Court Fines in 2015: $429 Million”

  1. CrazyJD Avatar

    >>But it’s also possible that some court systems view the assessment of fines and fees as a revenue-raising tool, >>

    Not only possible, but absolutely the fact. I-95 goes through Greensville/Emporia and Brunswick. Except for some low level drug trafficking which is handled by the regional strike force (got to really get on top of these thumbnail size sales of stuff), there isn’t all that much crime. The local mounties sit in the median at the same places all day and pull in speeders. Because the speed limit is 70, and absolutely everyone in this state knows (or should know unless they died and forgot to fall down) that you can go 9 miles over the limit without being picked up in just about any jurisdiction, those who go 10 mph over get picked up and charged with reckless driving (80 or over), a class 1 misdemeanor. It is stunningly easy to go 80 and be doing the speed of traffic south of Petersburg, except of course for that one little mph. Search the court’s website for figures re: same.

    But these are not primarily locals who are getting picked up. They all know where the cops sit and wait, and they go precisely 9 mph over, unless they’re from out of county or are remarkably dim-witted, and yes there are a fair number of those. No, it’s the out-of-staters who don’t know who get picked up. Their options are limited, they hire guys like me to go to court and try to get it reduced from reckless, which is an insurance killer.

    It’s the same on I 295 in the section that falls in Hopewell. This section has been widely publicized by Mid-Atlantic AAA as a speed trap. There is no question that these are revenue producers. Just ask any honest Sheriff’s deputy. But I’ve often thought of buying a billboard in these places warning of the speed traps. I wonder how much impact I might have on the revenue.

    All this being said, I would doubt the impact of these particular practices on the poor and downtrodden. It’s the people from out of state and NOVA who pay good money for people like me to go down to Emporia to represent them, particularly since they do not have to come back long distances to appear in court. It’ s a racket that induces widespread disrespect for the law and has for years.

  2. It is a well known fact that Emporia uses it as a revenue seeking issue vs. anything else. They wouldn’t get money if it wasn’t for them tailing people.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    I dunno – I see more State Troopers on the I-95 (and I-81, I-64) medians than local mounties… (still goes to local courts I think) but it does look like the “rural” counties along I-95, I-81 and Route 13 on the Eastern Shore….. and it probably could be further confirmed if the tickets could be broken down by type of violation.

    so .. you’d have to “adjust” for these if you really wanted to drill down on local enforcement….

    Also, in Fredericksburg city – they have special parking “enforcement” cars that are festooned with license plate readers (called Auto Chalk) and they are VERY effective at enforcement – AND they also use those license plates to locate other miscreants the law is looking for!).

  4. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    To play devil’s advocate: How is funding courts, in significant part, different from funding a county’s planning and zoning department through applicant fees or funding Fairfax County’s Rec Centers through membership fees?

    1. TMT, of course, it isn’t different. But the unfairness is more stark when it’s the court that’s doing-in our poorest citizens. It’s one thing to defray some or all of the expenses of the judicial system from those processed by it; it’s another to yield net revenues intended to become income to the general till. And I despair of seeing even that limitation written as a clear guideline. Look at the games bureaucrats play with budgets: what’s an ‘expense of the judicial system’ (for example, does it include debt service on the new court house? the new riot gear for the Sheriff’s office?). And then there are cross-subsidies to be unraveled (does the Commissioner of Accounts rake in the big fees and underwrite losses in Juvenile Court?). So, who’s to say any particular fines and fees are “excessive” even when measured against the costs they recover?

      1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

        Acbar – “it’s another to yield net revenues intended to become income to the general till.” I agree with you completely. Government should not recover more than its costs of operating the courts from fines or fees. And the costs should be evaluated to exclude capital costs, including depreciation.

        As I posted earlier in another item, absent evidence that a person presents a risk on the road, a person with a suspended license for failing to pay fines should be permitted to drive to and from work, etc. But at the same time, there cannot be a free pass to violate traffic laws because one is poor.

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    perhaps a better apples-to-apples would be fines for zoning violations…

    the license fees supposedly cover the costs of processing…

    If not mistaken – local govt cannot make a “profit” on such fees…

    I know the last few years – in my county – it’s been the opposite – taxpayers have had to cover planning and zoning deficits however – they were caught with some outrageous fees for special use and the claim was they were doing that to make up for losses on standard fees. Our BOS actually had a 3rd party go in and calculate the actual amount of staff hours on planning and zoning and now it’s a basic fee – plus additional if staff time exceeds the typical and standard fees went up – special use -down.

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