Society is intimately familiar with the law enforcement mantra: “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.” We are also acutely aware of the mantra’s misdemeanor version: “Don’t do the crime if you can’t pay the fine.”
However, if you have recently been on the receiving end of a fine levied by a state or local government agency, you may ask when did it become the role of government to openly fleece citizens with lofty fines clearly not befitting of the crimes for which they are levied.
For example, the city of Sacramento recently fined a relative $330 and towed his car for parking illegally without paying $5 in a downtown parking lot. My relative is a senior citizen who didn’t figure out he parked in a pay lot near the restaurant he visited. He had never seen a lot before with a pay station where drivers manually deposit money in the corresponding slot where cars are parked.
So he left the lot without paying, and the car was towed less than an hour later. When he returned from dinner, he called the Sacramento police number on a parking lot placard, determined his car was towed and made arrangements to visit the tow company yard 15 minutes away.
When he arrived at the tow yard, he first learned the cost for his crime. A $330 fine for a $5 parking violation. In a word, my relative felt extorted.
The tow truck driver explained that the fine levels are apparently set by the city of Sacramento. He said that towing services have always been expensive. He also added that he didn’t set the fines and was just doing his job (why does everybody say that when it seems they know what is occurring is wrong?). My stunned relative paid the fine and decided on the spot to never go downtown for dinner again.
Government can say my relative has no one to blame but himself, and that lofty fines are strong deterrents. My relative openly admits he made a mistake and expected to pay a fine for it. But a $330 fine is more akin to a serious driving violation such as running a red light or driving solo in the carpool lane.
We all know the soap opera saga that government agencies face. They grew too big during the good times, their tax revenues and budgets are drying up and they are scrambling like mad to fund salaries, fund pensions — ahem, provide services — and stay in business. Budget and program cuts have been made, but the broken record rally call continues for higher taxes, higher service costs and higher fines.
And as citizens, we allow it to happen. We stand by while government tacks fees and penalties onto every service and violation until the day we need the service or make a mistake. Then we act shocked by the costs — one could say the costs of our apathy.
Take solace, Californians, other states are in on the same game. On a recent road trip through the northwest, we discovered Idaho state police hiding in the shadows eager to write tickets on mountain roadways with more changing speed limit zones than a Grand Prix race track. It seems all states and cities now are heavily leveraging traffic officers, reportedly eager to protect roads while also intent on writing costly tickets to help pad government coffers.
It’s not getting the ticket and being penalized for the mistake that chafes the citizenry—the outrage is paying the additional costs of a citation artificially inflated with fees and penalties because government can’t balance budgets and is looking for more revenue sources.
On the same trip, we noticed the maximum fines for littering in Nevada and Oregon were even substantially higher than in California. If memory serves, California’s littering fine is $1,000 (it’s probably higher). It’s a maximum of $2,000 in Nevada, and it’s up to $6,000 in Oregon. We hoped the $6,000 price tag in Oregon was for littering a truckload of furniture instead of an apple core, but you never know in a state that doesn’t trust its citizens to pump their own gas.
Luckily, we made it home without committing any infractions. But we’re all human, we all know it’s only a matter of time before we make a mistake and have to literally pay the consequences, courtesy of our faithful government.
Dan Francisco is an El Dorado Hills-based public relations consultant to the high-tech industry.