Garnish a paycheck. Sell the television set. Ruin a credit rating. Intercept state tax refunds. Put a lien on property.
These are some of the civil remedies that would replace the threat of spending time behind bars if minor criminal offenses are decriminalized.Under the present system, if you fail to appear for a trial on a minor criminal traffic citation, a warrant is issued. But the courts are limited in the ability to enforce outstanding warrants because a person has not been found guilty so a judgment can't be entered.
But in the civil arena, your absence in court is no big deal. A default judgment could immediately be imposed. Collection of fines would be expedited without your cooperation, and your license could be suspended.
Five years ago, Salt Lake City removed parking fines from criminal court, giving city officials civil powers. The change has enhanced the efficiency in collecting fines, says Carlie Christensen, general counsel for the Utah Administrative Office of the Courts.
Christensen also serves as a member of the Commission of Justice in the 21st Century. The commission recommends decriminalizing minor traffic offenses for these reasons:
- To give the ability to enforce sanctions against violators.
"Right now, we're virtually powerless to affect those who fail to appear. It does not mean the law would be `less serious' for minor offenses, it means the law would more likely to be enforced."
- Civil classification is more consistent with the notion of criminal law.
"Criminal law implies you have intent accompanying an act. Most of the time, drivers have just made an unintentional mistake or are not paying attention. DUI, for instance, is a criminal offense because someone may not intend to drive drunk, but they intend to drink."
- Sending minor traffic offenders to jail and using law officers to serve outstanding warrants is a misuse of limited resources.
"Jails are for people who are a threat to community safety, not for those who don't pay traffic fines. And it's a tremendous drain of manpower to have officers tracking warrants."
- More strict enforcement will result in increased public safety.
"The bottom line is that the Legislature has determined that certain offenses pose a risk to the safety of the citizenry. If we're going to prevent abuse of laws, then we need to enforce them."
The idea of decriminalizing minor traffic has been talked about for years. A year before the Justice Commission's proposal, Melinda Monahan, circuit court administrator, studied the issue.
In her report, she notes several states have successfully made the change. In Arizona "the implementation of this (decriminalized) system had a major impact on criminal case-load and has significantly reduced the number of outstanding warrants. It has also increased the ability of the courts to collect revenues," Monahan states.
Distribution of revenue generated by tickets would remain essentially unchanged, said Monahan. Currently, the Salt Lake City Police Department receives 20 percent of the revenue with 80 percent going to the state, for instance.
William Vickrey, Utah Court Administrator, said the judiciary will further study the "reasonable" recommendation made by the Justice Commission. Public hearings scheduled in the newt few months will encourage public reaction to the proposal.
"There are many questions that remain unanswered," Vickrey said."But the 50,000 outstanding warrants reflect there's a problem with the present justice system. It doesn't do any good for officers to issue citations if we break down on the enforcement end. We need to be willing to explore a more efficient and effective means to strictly enforce laws and ultimately, improve safety."