Monday, April 9, 2012

"Emergency Legislation" Introduced to Impose Late Fees

Near the end of the general assembly, an "emergency bill" was introduced which would allow counties and cities to impose late fees for red light and speed camera citations to people who pay a fine after the deadline on the citation.  Senate Bill 1101 was introduced by State Senator Victor Ramirez on 3/29, and was referred on the Judicial Proceedings Committee on April 6th.  The bill applies to red light and speed camera tickets as well as parking tickets.

Most jurisdictions CURRENTLY charge late fees for citations, EVEN THOUGH THERE IS NO EXPLICIT AUTHORIZATION FOR SUCH FEES IN STATE LAW.  The fiscal policy notes for the bill states "On March 21, 2012, the Chief Judge of the District Court issued a letter advising local governments that, despite current references in the District Court Uniform Speed Monitoring Citation to local administrative, flagging, and/or late fees, such fees likely violate the requirement in Article IV, Section 41A of the Maryland Constitution that the District Court be uniform throughout the State. The District Court had allowed a local government to charge administrative, flagging, and/or late fees for fines generated by traffic control signal monitoring systems if the jurisdiction had submitted a copy of a local ordinance authorizing such fees. The letter indicates that 31 jurisdictions authorize such fees. However, this practice was determined to likely be in violation of the uniformity requirement of the Maryland Constitution, and the District Court will revise the Uniform Speed Monitoring Citation to eliminate any reference to the local authorization."

In other words, numerous jurisdictions have been illegally, and unconstitutionally, imposing late fees which they are not authorized to under state law... for years.

The bill was introduced as "emergency legislation" after the normal due date because of the possible impact to revenue collected as late fees by jurisdictions if it does not pass.  "Because the bill is generally consistent with long-standing practice, it is not anticipated to materially affect local government finances. However, local government revenues decrease, potentially significantly beginning in FY 2012, if the bill is not enacted and the District Court’s recent interpretation of current law is enforced."
"to the extent late fees have been a significant revenue source for jurisdictions, the bill allows for their continued collection. For example, Baltimore City advises that in fiscal 2011 it received $1.5 million in flagging fees from late payments on traffic control signal and speed monitoring system fines."

The collection of revenues from expected late fees has been written into the budgets of other jurisdictions as well.  Montgomery County, for example reportedly budgeted to collect $1.1million worth of late fees in FY2010.

The legislation does not spell out the amount of the fee, or how long an individual would be allowed to pay.  This website has seen many examples of citations issued by some jurisdictions with due date was set only two or three weeks after the date the citation was mailed, thus opening the possibility that a person might not receive a citation until after the due date if for example they were out of town.  According to an article in the Gazette, late fees are in some cases considered part of the revenue collected by the program of which the vendor collects a 40% cut.  This gives the contractor who mails the citations, manages the customer service line, and collects payments, receives a financial incentive to make it more likely that people will pay citations late in order to increase their revenue... for example by mailing citations at the latest possible date or setting the shortest possible period of time to pay.

The deadline to contest a citation in normally set earlier than the deadline to pay the fine.  As such any individual who does not receive a citation until after the due date, for whatever reason, would normally be told by the speed camera program's customer service line (run by the private contractor getting a cut of the revenue) that they can no longer contest the fine, or the late fee, in court.