WSAZ Investigates: Unpaid Tickets

CABELL COUNTY, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- It’s a problem frustrating law enforcement and putting your safety in jeopardy: Drivers in West Virginia are racking up tickets and not paying them. Officers feel like their hands are tied when it comes to doing something about it.

“They get more and more unpaid tickets and they get deeper and deeper in the hole,” said Cabell County Sheriff Chuck Zerkle.

According to officials with the West Virginia DMV, there are currently 532,227 open unpaid citation files. That includes drivers with suspended licenses for any type of unpaid ticket except parking. That number includes charges of speeding, uttering, soliciting, improper registration, etc.

That total does not include unlicensed drivers whom the DMV does not have a record for.

“We have drivers that have close to 100 pages of data on their record,” DMV officials told WSAZ. “However, that would indicate unpaid notices, DUI’s, point suspensions, no insurance files, etc.”

The DMV averages about 60,000 new unpaid citations every year.

Zerkle said many drivers accumulate several tickets, including a man who led officers on a multi-county chase in November before crashing on I-64 in Cabell. The sheriff says that suspect, Robert Goff Jr., 33, of Charleston, had 32 unpaid tickets.

The estimated dollar amount of money still owed in unpaid tickets in West Virginia is even more staggering.

West Virginia has a state minimum court cost of $160.25. If a driver is pulled over by a city police department that number will likely be different. However, if a driver is given a county or state ticket, the court cost will be the amount stated above.

The court cost is often the bigger dollar amount on the ticket, but the driver will also pay a fine for whatever crime he or she is accused of.

Using a Cabell County ticket as an example – meaning the driver was pulled over by a sheriff’s deputy or WVSP state trooper – we can guess the unpaid citations in the state are in the multi-millions.

If you multiply the court costs alone of a Cabell County ticket ($160.25) by the number of unpaid citations in the state of West Virginia (532,227) the total comes to more than $85 million. That does not include the fine money.

The exact amount is very difficult to estimate given police departments across have different court costs and the fines associated with each unpaid citation could be $1 or $1,000.

It is also important to point out that the number of unpaid citations is always changing. Not all drivers will remain delinquent, but again, the number of unpaid tickets grows by the thousands each year.

“Unless it’s a serious offense, if it’s just a minor traffic offense, we just give them another ticket that they probably won’t pay,” Zerkle said.

He says the laws are not strict enough and there really isn’t anything officers can do to force people to pay their tickets.

Cabell County Prosecutor Corky Hammers tells WSAZ the law is much more lenient than it was several years ago.

Before, Hammers says jail time was a lot more likely if a driver was caught behind the wheel with a suspended license.

“Sometimes [license suspension] prompts people into paying the tickets, but then a lot of the time it doesn’t,” Zerkle said.

Now, a driver not paying one ticket can get their license suspended then it isn’t until the third and subsequent tickets with a suspended license that the driver could face 30-90 days in jail.

Even then, the decision of whether or not the driver actually spends any time behind bars is up to the courts and Zerkle says the jails are already overcrowded.

“In Cabell County with the problems we’re having with heroin and all that, our jail bill is looming at $4 million,” Zerkle said. “So on the other side of that coin, you start locking up a bunch of people for unpaid speeding tickets, your jail bill and everything else goes up.

That leaves many drivers to repeat their mistakes without any severe consequences.

WSAZ rode along with Deputy C.J. Stewart who says about one out of every five drivers he pulls over have suspended licenses.

“Most people [with suspended licenses] just seem to not care,” Stewart said. “They need to either go to work or go to the grocery store so they don’t really care and they just drive.”

Drivers who lose their license can also lose their insurance.

“Then if you or your family gets involved in accidents or crashes and things like that with these people then there’s consequences,” Zerkle said.

In January alone, the Cabell County Magistrate Court had $11,827 in unpaid tickets. Cabell County court employees did not have easily accessible information for unpaid citations beyond the January 2018 total of $11,827.

The city of Huntington was not able to provide an exact number, but said the city has “thousands” of unpaid tickets.

The Milton Police Department alone had $113,400 in unpaid citations in 2017. To date, they have more than $400,000 in tickets that haven’t been paid.

Officials in Charleston tabulated payment plans that had payments due in 2017. Between Jan. 1 of 2017 and Dec. 31 of 2017, payments due to the city totaled $373,623.49 for 1,242 cases. That does not necessarily mean the citations were given in 2017; the drivers just had payments due that year.

When people don’t pay tickets, it also hurts programs in the state.

For example, the fines from Cabell County tickets go to the Board of Education. Zerkle said the BOE improvement fund was given $237,185 in 2017 through fines.

The court cost ($160.25) on a Cabell ticket is divided up and given to different programs:

$48.25 – Regional Jail Per Diem
$30.00 – Regional Jail Operation Fund
$40.00 – Regional Jail Authority
$10.00 – Criminal Victims Fund
$2.00 – Law Enforcement Training
$10.00 – Community Correction
$5.00 – Courthouse Security
$5.00 – Courthouse Improvements

“There’s a lot of fees that are intended to do a lot of good for West Virginia,” Zerkle said. “There’s so many things that depend on it. If the system would work and everybody did what they were supposed to do, things would be a lot easier and a lot better off for everybody.”

Unfortunately, the number of unpaid citations is growing and Zerkle says he doesn’t see a solution at this point.

“It’s a catch-22 right now, and I don’t know where the end in sight is,” Zerkle said.

In-state drivers have 180 days to pay a county ticket per state law, but officials say cities must hold the citations for an additional 90 days before submitting them to the DMV for suspension.

In addition to paying the actual citations, DMV officials say there is a license reinstatement fee for each case of $50. However, reinstatement fees for cases before 8/4/2005 could range from $15 to $65 depending on the year because the amount has changed throughout the years with legislation.

In Kentucky, a driver can face jail time after just one ticket with a suspended license. It's a class b misdemeanor (186.990) and can come with a fine and/or up to 90 days in jail.

However, that doesn't mean the state isn't dealing with jail overcrowding as well. Back in 2011, Kentucky lawmakers passed legislation that requires police to give people citations for certain misdemeanors instead of arresting them.
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In Ohio, a prosecutor tells us he doesn't really see this as a big problem. He says if a driver doesn't pay a ticket, the municipal courts can follow up with him/her and find the driver in contempt and put them in jail. The prosecutor tells us that threat alone -- of possibly going to jail for not paying just one ticket -- often convinces people to just pay.



 
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