3/27/2008North Dakota Supreme Court Slashes Traffic Ticket Profiteering
North Dakota Supreme Court ruling smacks down cities attempting to boost revenue with excessive ticket fines.
North Dakota motorists could receive millions in refunds from illegally imposed traffic fines following a ruling Monday from the North Dakota Supreme Court. The justices were unanimous in denying that municipalities had the legal authority to set traffic ticket fines at a level exceeding that set down in state law. Several cities including Dickinson and Fargo had filled local coffers by inflating the amount of revenue generated from traffic tickets claiming "home rule" authority. In some cases, minor fines that should have been $10 were inflated to $122 while a $55 state speeding fine became a $282 local fine.
That did not sit well with Stephanie Sauby who filed a federal class action lawsuit against the city of Fargo. As part of Sauby's challenge, the United States District Court, Southeastern Division for the District of North Dakota sought clarification from the state supreme court whether state law gave Fargo the ability to impose unlimited fines under a home rule city ordinance.
Between February 2003 and January 2006, Fargo police officers had accused Sauby of four different minor offenses ranging from choosing not to wear a seatbelt to allegedly speeding 9 MPH over the limit. The city demanded that Sauby pay $202 in fines, even though state law only allowed the collection of $72 for the same offenses. The high court found this unacceptable.
"A home rule city's power to enact ordinances that supersede state law is not without limitation, because a home rule city's powers must be based upon statutory provisions," Justice Dale V. Sandstrom wrote for the high court. "A penalty that exceeds the limits delineated by equivalent state law supersedes state law."
In its ruling the court set aside a 1982 Attorney General ruling that had given the green light to cities eager to boost traffic fines.
"The Attorney General's opinions on the issue are not persuasive, and we decline to follow them," Sandstrom wrote.
Sauby's federal suit will now proceed with the judge in the case deciding how many should receive refunds for the illegally imposed fines. A full copy of the decision is available in a 30k PDF file at the source link below.