Municipal fines: the 'other' constitutional referendum

By Thomas Wilson


   Tennesseans will vote on two Constitutional Amendment questions on the state's November 2002 general election ballot.
   The most talked-about amendment could lift the state Constitution's ban on a lottery. The second, lesser-known amendment would end the Constitution's $50 limit on municipal fines levied against citizens who violate city ordinances.
   The new limit would be set by the General Assembly, not individual cities, and the maximum amount citizens could be fined would be $500.
   The Tennessee Constitution prohibits fines against citizens in excess of $50 without holding a jury trial. Municipal courts in Tennessee are not authorized to hold jury trials for ordinance violations.
   "The maximum fine assessed in our municipal court is $50," said Deputy Chief Larry Shell of the Elizabethton Police Department. "There are litigation and court costs also that will bring the amount to a higher total cost."
   The Tennessee Municipal League (TML), which lobbies the General Assembly on behalf of cities, is sponsoring a statewide grassroots initiative to encourage citizens to vote yes to the amendment. The TML has decried the low fine limit that can be assessed regardless of the severity of the violations.
   Some cities had set fines higher than $50. However, the Tennessee State Supreme Court ruled last year that fines exceeding $50 are unconstitutional if their purpose is punitive rather than remedial.
   Fines assessed in municipal courts range from violations of zoning, building code and fire safety, and public health. Violations of ordinances pertaining to animal control, illegal dumping and landfills, adult establishments and alcohol-related offenses are also covered in municipal court fines.
   "A lot of our code violations do not have bond set to them," said Shell. "The offender is just set to appear in court."
   State law reads that a city's authority for increased monetary penalties for ordinance violations does not apply to ordinances regulating moving traffic violations. Also, any case heard in a municipal court may be appealed to a state court.
   Elizabethton Police issue citations ranging from abandoned vehicles to reckless driving.
   Citation fines range from $55 for parking violations to a maximum of $113.75 for violations such as reckless driving, failure to yield, and stop sign violations, according to the department's citation code list. Fine amounts are approved through ordinance by the Elizabethton City Council.
   The department reported issuing 450 citations for various offenses between July 21 to August 20.
   Changes to the Tennessee Constitution may only be made by referendum or by constitutional convention. In order to get a Constitutional referendum on a general election ballot, the proposed change must first pass in the state legislature in two separate sessions.
   The proposed municipal fine amendment legislation was passed by the General Assembly in 2000, and again in 2002. 
   A referendum to amend the state Constitution may only be held during a gubernatorial election. More than 50 percent of the voters who mark a ballot for governor must also vote yes on both the lottery and municipal court fine amendments to pass.