A State's Greed and getting poorer Whites and Minorities off the road
Drivers Mailed $700K In Phone Fines
Cases Were Dropped Against 8,900 Others
February 13, 2007
By COLIN POITRAS, Courant Staff Writer
The state took in more than $700,000 last year from people who didn't put up a fight and simply mailed in a $100 fine after being caught driving while talking on a hand-held cellphone, statistics show.
That amount could have been a lot more: Potential fines totaling $900,000 were not pursued because the state chose not to prosecute more than 8,900 other drivers who received tickets for cellphone violations and then showed up for court.
The reasons for not prosecuting the cases vary and are not broken down in statistics provided to The Courant by the state judicial branch.
State law allows first-time offenders to have the fine waived if they can prove they have purchased a hands-free accessory for their phone within 30 days of getting a ticket. In some cases, prosecutors may have accepted a driver's excuse for the violation or proof that using the cellphone was for an emergency allowable under the law.
Whatever the circumstance, the statistics related to enforcement of the law are sure to add grist to the debate over a legislative proposal to raise the fine for a cellphone violation to $250.
A bill calling for a higher fine is currently pending before the Transportation Committee, and one co-sponsor of the legislation is already reconsidering whether a higher fine is the way to go.
State Rep. Richard Roy, D-Milford, who has been pushing the cellphone ban for nearly 10 years, said his first response to learning the amount of money collected in fines was sympathy for those who chose to pay.
"That's a lot of money, money that could be put to good use I'm sure by the people who were fined," Roy said.
Roy said Monday that he is second-guessing the proposal to raise the fine after numerous police officers contacted him about the bill. He now believes lowering the fine might be the better way to go.
"A seat belt violation is $37," Roy said. "One officer said he had no trouble giving out a $37 ticket, but he would have a lot trouble giving out a $200 fine for a cellphone. That takes food off people's tables."
Having a hefty fine wouldn't be effective if it wasn't enforced, Roy said.
Overall, statistics show that Connecticut law enforcement handed out more than 19,000 tickets for violating the state's cellphone ban in 2006, according to the judicial branch. Of that total, 8,901 people or 46.74 percent of those ticketed were not prosecuted.
Another 7,265 motorists, or about 38 percent of the total, pleaded "no contest" to the charge and mailed in a $100 fine. More than 1,800 drivers, about 9.5 percent of those ticketed, were found guilty of a cellphone violation after challenging their case in court. Only 1.5 percent or 285 people had their cases dismissed by a judge. Three people were found not guilty of a violation when they pursued their case in court.
Some 763 individuals, or about 4 percent of the total ticketed, failed to respond to their ticket by mailing in a fine or appearing in court and had their licenses suspended, judicial statistics show.
State Rep. Thomas J. Drew, D-Fairfield, who is co-sponsoring the raise-the-fine bill with Roy, said the statistics, although intriguing, do not tell the whole story.
"The big question here that is difficult to pick up in the statistics is how many times were there violations that police saw but did not issue a ticket?" Drew said. "What we want to do is cause people to comply with the law in the first place and find a sensible way for people to enforce the law in the second."
The president of the Connecticut Police Chiefs Association, Norwalk Police Chief Harry W. Rilling, said he believes drivers will take the ban more seriously if they know they risk a substantial fine. He was less sure if it would increase enforcement, saying police officers try to maintain the ban along with a host of other - sometimes more urgent - responsibilities they face on their daily beat.
"The amount of the fine really wouldn't have an impact on a police officer's likelihood of enforcing the law," Rilling said. "What it would do is send a very clear message to those people ignoring the law that the legislature is serious about it and it would have a significant impact on them."
Contact Colin Poitras at firstname.lastname@example.org.