Citation used to take it easy on drivers modified, costing state’s residents and counties more cash

There isn’t usually a bright side to getting a traffic ticket, and thanks to a change in the fine for one particular citation, what was once a popular means of enforcing the law while cutting motorists a break is not only more expensive for drivers, but it’s costing the county money as well.

The citation, a 3111A – obedience to a traffic control device – carried a fine of $25, until late last year when Gov. Tom Corbett signed House Bill 1060 into law and the fine was increased to $150, with the extra $125 to go to pay for infrastructure projects, bridge work and other transportation earmarks.

The increase is designed to raise much needed dollars for Pennsylvania’s infrastructure, but while the state is making out by collecting more money from drivers who pay the ticket, counties have lost their share of court costs from 3111 tickets.

That’s because while the state legislature raised the fine, certain fees that once were tacked on to the 3111 ticket, such as the $37.50 court costs, were eliminated from the citation completely. Of that $37.50, counties received $20.80, according to the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts.

In 2013, 1,134 tickets for violation 3111 were filed at Magisterial District Judge Fred Miller’s office in Tyrone, which because of Interstate 99, handles the most traffic citations of the six District Courts in Blair County. At $20.80 for each, given all pleaded or were found guilty, the county’s share of the court costs comes in at $23,587.

With six District Courts in Blair County, the county could see between $40,000 and $50,000 in revenue dry up in 2014 because of the change, noted Blair County Finance Director Robert Kuntz.

Kuntz said county officials would look at what impact the change in the law would have on revenue for the county in 2014, but said current Blair County budget numbers already show revenue from District Courts coming in $12,000 lower than budgeted.

Kuntz pointed out those revenues go into the county’s general fund, but the cost of running the county’s courts always outpaces any revenues brought in by fines and costs.

“While it would be nice to have, it’s not going to have a significant impact on the county’s budget,” Kuntz said.

In 2013, there were a total of 580 citations for the violation given out in the Magisterial District Judge Craig Ormsby’s jurisdiction, comparable to the 613 written in Magisterial District Judge Steven Jackson’s jurisdiction that includes Allegheny and Logan townships.

Based on 2013 numbers, filings from three of the six District Courts in Blair County – Miller’s, Jackson’s and Ormsby’s offices – equaled about $48,000 in revenue for the county.

Tyrone Police Chief John Romeo, himself a retired state trooper, said drivers like the citation for one main reason.

“When someone gets a ticket, they’re not concerned about the $150 fine, they’re concerned about the points,” Romeo said.

Points against a driver’s license raise insurance rates and after six points, driver’s face having to take tests and if they lose even more points, face license suspension.

Romeo said its the District Courts who have to process the tickets which are left out in the new law. He said officers in Tyrone deal more with equipment violations, but he said as a state trooper the 3111 was used often if a driver was concerned about more points against their license.

Even then, Romeo explained that police don’t know how many points a driver has against their license and it’s information PennDOT doesn’t share with them. In fact, troopers are told not to talk about points with drivers for that reason – they just don’t have the individual driver’s information available. When officers decide to write a 3111 violation, it’s totally at their discretion, Romeo said.

Another reason the 3111 was better for drivers – less of a fine – disappeared with the 2014 increase from $25 to $150, Romeo said.

In 2013, a 3111 citation carried a total cost to the driver of $112, with $25 of that the fine and the rest attributed to costs, a $10 EMS fee and other surcharges.

In 2014, the state bumped the fine up to $150 but eliminated all but the $10 EMS fee and a $10 judicial computer fund charge, bringing the cost of the ticket to the driver in at $170.

Altoona police Lt. Jeffrey Pratt said that in the city, officers write the citation at their discretion, but said because of the high numbers of calls for other issues and staffing constraints due to the city’s financial woes, officers don’t spend as much time enforcing traffic violations as other municipalities.

Magisterial District Judge Jeffrey Auker’s office on Fourth Street only saw 74 of the 3111 violations filed in 2013.

Still, the 3111 violation is a good bargaining tool used to work out ticket disputes, which means less traffic hearings and less scheduling and overtime issues.

Because of Act 47, the department had to appoint a traffic court liaison who meets with defendants on the day of their scheduled hearings to work out a deal, Pratt said. If the liaison and defendant can’t come to a plea agreement and the defendant wants a hearing, a continuance is requested and a new hearing date is scheduled, because the officer who wrote the ticket has to be the officer who testifies at the hearing.

The 3111 violation is a good way to reach those plea agreements and avoid the extra expense of the hearing, Pratt noted.

For drivers like 40-year-old Kerry Naylor of Tyrone, who was pulled over for speeding in June, getting a 3111 turned out to “be a pleasant surprise.”

Naylor said he wasn’t familiar with a 3111 violation until he talked to some friends, who explained to him the main benefit – no points on his license. Naylor admitted that, as someone who never had a moving violation since he started driving as a teenager, the points weren’t a big concern, except it will be nice that his insurance rates won’t increase.

“When you think about it, in the long run paying the higher fine is better if you’re not inclined to see your insurance rates go up,” Naylor said.

With the half the attraction of getting a 3111 citation gone, one area police department has all but stopped issuing the tickets.

“We used to write a lot of them,” said Duncansville Borough Police Chief James Ott, who said the 3111 violation was once a great way for police to do their job while giving drivers a bit of a break.

Ott noted he doesn’t believe the change is all that fair to motorists and pointed out that while municipal police departments used to split half the $25 fine with the state, the higher $150 fine still only provides a $12.50 share for the borough.

Ott said he believes raising the fine was a mistake and said the Legislature never consulted law enforcement about the change.

Ott said he also believes officers who used to write the citations will scale back how often they use the 3111 violation.

“We are seeing it,” Ott said. “You hear departments talking. They’re writing them, but it’s decreased considerably just because of the increase in the fine.”

Numbers from the first half of the year appear to show a drop in the number of 3111 citations written in Blair County, although because of the winter weather effecting the first several months of 2014, a true picture of just how many 3111 tickets are still being written won’t be clear until the end of the year.

For the first half of 2014, police filed 354 citations, down from the 437 filed between Jan. 1 and June 30, 2013, in Tyrone District Court, according to court records. At Ormsby’s office in Roaring Spring, which covers the other stretch of I-99 in Blair County, a total of 175 citations for violation 3111 were filed since the beginning of 2014, down from the 319 filed in the first half of 2013, according to court records.

State Representative John McGinnis, who voted against the House transportation bill that raised the fine, said he voted against the bill, one he called “extremely wasteful, inefficient and unnecessary.”

McGinnis voted against the bill, one that also increases taxes on fuel over several years, three times and said he wouldn’t be surprised if the revenue forecasts from the 3111 violations as well as the fuel tax increase don’t materialize. He said he was unaware of the implications to the county in regard to the 3111 tickets.

“The issue of bridge and road repairs needs addressed,” McGinnis said. “But I’m confident it can be done with the funds that are already available.”