Grant County Justice of the Peace Kathy Stinnett hears a lot of stories in her job, but the top two questions the court gets are where does money from fines go and why are fines so high. The answers are straightforward but include many elements.
For one, justices of the peace do not have the discretion to choose whether or not to fine someone. The fines imposed on offenders are set by statute, she said.
“In the old days, maybe a judge might dismiss a fine,” she said.
Today, if a police officer presents the facts and a charge, she must follow through — that’s the law.
“The statutes that define offenses impose a duty upon the court having jurisdiction to pass sentence,” Oregon state law states.
Traffic offenses are mostly violations — offenses that can be punished by a fine but not imprisonment. The minimum and maximum fines for a violation are set by statute. Stinnett said she looks at a person’s record to determine the appropriate level of a fine.
“The revenue brought in by Justice Court is a byproduct of the court system,” she said. “It’s not why we do what we do.”
The first $50 of any fine that is collected goes to the state, Stinnett said, and the last $16 goes to the jail fund. What’s left in between is divided between the county and the agency that wrote the citation.
For a $100 ticket issued by a John Day police officer, $50 will go to the state, $16 will go to the jail fund and $34 will be equally split between Grant County’s general fund and the city of John Day. If a sheriff’s deputy issued the ticket, then $34 will go to the county.
The lowest traffic fine is $65. In that case, $50 will go to the state and $15 will go to the jail fund. If an offender is making payments on an expensive fine, the jail fund will not get its money until the end of the payment schedule, but it must be $16 in full.
Failure to pay
Some people, however, make little or no attempt to pay their fine or appear in court, Stinnett said. The burden is on the defendant to prove they are indigent and unable to pay a fine. A process exists that they can follow to make their case, she said.
Lack of action by the defendant can lead to suspension of driving privileges.
“Violations for driving while suspended or uninsured are a chronic problem,” Stinnett said. “The question is: How did these people get to this point?”
Grant County Justice Court provides payment agreements based on what the offender can afford. But Stinnett maintains a “hard and fast rule” about fines and payments.
“They must make their monthly payments on time or call the court to explain why they can’t,” she said.
Those who don’t comply could find their debt placed in the hands of a private collection agency or the Oregon Department of Revenue. In addition to having their driver’s license suspended, show cause or arrest warrants could be issued.
But this doesn’t happen overnight, Stinnett notes. First, offenders must be in default for payment on their fines for at least a month without contacting the court before the court will mail one or two failure-to-comply letters to the offender, Stinnett said.
If there’s still no response, the court will send a notice of license suspension to the Department of Motor Vehicles. The DMV will then give the offender 60 days to respond to the court. If they don’t respond after all that, then their license is suspended.
But it can be reinstated, Stinnett pointed out. If the offender deals with the collection agency or Revenue Department and provides a satisfactory explanation to the court, Stinnett could return driving privileges to the offender at her discretion.
“They must take responsibility, contact the court and make payments,” she said.
Justice court is a local court of limited jurisdiction presided over by an elected justice of the peace. The court oversees traffic violations, violation and misdemeanor crimes, small claims up to $10,000, landlord-tenant disputes and evictions and other civil matters.
Caseload volume at the Grant County Justice Court goes up and down over time for a variety of reasons, Stinnett said. Factors include whether the district attorney chooses to file a case, the level of law enforcement activity and whether citizens want to file civil suits, such as landlord-tenant disputes or small claims cases.
Oregon justice courts are required to file biannual reports to the legislature. The number of cases filed in Grant County Justice Court increased from 1,035 in the 2017 fiscal year to 1,345 in FY2018.
The court held 486 hearings in addition to 24 traffic court dates in FY2018. It processed 300 potential jurors and maintained 125 for the year. That level of activity has been fairly consistent since then, Stinnett said.
The court imposed $215,747 in fines in FY2018 but collected only $141,514. Civil cases amounted to 163 cases and $6,449 in civil revenue. A total of 284 cases were sent to collection agencies in the first eight months of 2018.
Most people pay “presumptive fines,” which is the amount set by statute that a defendant can pay to resolve a violation offense without having to appear in court. But offenders can contact the court later and provide a reason that might lower the fine, Stinnett said. About $3,000 in traffic fines was refunded in FY2018.
The court awarded about $8,000 in restitution to 35 victims in FY2018. In a wild game case on private land, the victim received $3,000 in restitution, which was donated to local charities, Stinnett said.