Amendment's passage could raise fines for code violations

By Thomas Wilson

STAR STAFF
twilson@starhq.com

   Most Tennesseans know the election ballot includes a referendum permitting them to vote "yes" or "no" to lift the state constitution's ban on a state lottery. But they may not be aware of a second referendum on the ballot known as "Question 2".
   "Question 2", if passed, would lift a constitutional rule that prohibits municipal courts from issuing fines greater than $50 to citizens who violate city ordinances. "Question 2" carries weight in protecting public safety, according to supporters of the referendum.
   "Government and community leaders face daily challenges in enforcing ordinances that offenders routinely ignore," said Margaret Mahery, executive director of the Tennessee Municipal League, a city lobbyist group that has spearheaded the effort to pass the amendment.
   The TML, a lobby group for the state's cities, has been at the forefront of the fine amendment with a "Fifty bucks won't stop the bad guys" campaign.
   If "Question 2" is passed, the new limit for municipal ordinance fines would be set by the General Assembly -- not individual cities.
   Until last year, some municipalities had ignored the constitutional stipulation and were setting fines higher than $50. The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled in Sept. 2001 that municipal fines or penalties in excess of $50 violate the state constitution if the purpose of the fine is to punish the violator rather than to remedy the damage caused by the violation.
   "Question 2 only affects those who choose to violate the ordinances in your city," said Mahery in a statement regarding the amendment. "It is our belief that those who choose to violate the law; who use our municipal court system and subject our communities to unsafe conditions, should be fined more than $50."
   The American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee (ACLU-TN) Board of Directors announced Thursday its opposition to Question 2. ACLU-TN Executive Director, Hedy Weinberg, said the amendment would give the General Assembly too much power. She said the legislature would be able to determine whether or not a citizen who has been fined in excess of $50 - and who has appealed their city's decision - has a right to a jury trial.
   "The framers of the Tennessee Constitution understood that the right to a jury trial is very dear to the American people," Weinberg said. "While the current wording of the constitution may be overly restrictive of a municipal government's right to set reasonable fines for ordinance violations, the wording of Question 2 leaves too much discretion to the legislature."
   Ordinance violations include vehicle violations, building code violations, open burning of trash or leaves, unsecured buildings, tire dumps, and other public safety issues.
   Tennessee law specifies that the more common violations of "rules of the road" are Class C misdemeanors, which carry maximum terms of imprisonment of 30 days and maximum fines of $50.
   More serious offenses that are specifically classified as Class B Misdemeanors or higher carry higher maximum fines and longer maximum terms of imprisonment.
   According to the city of Elizabethton's list of police department fines, the city currently may impose a maximum fine of $50 for any vehicle violation. However, such citations include court costs of $25 to $50, plus a $13.75 "lig tax", raising the total cost for a citation from $55 to a maximum $113.75.
   The maximum $113.75 fee includes moving violations such as failure to yield, failure to maintain control of a vehicle, speeding 20 miles-per-hour over the posted speed limit, reckless driving, running a stop sign, and window tinting.
   The TML campaign, in pushing for fines greater than $50, cites numerous examples of municipal ordinance violations around the state that resulted in serious injury of citizens or possible risk of public safety.
   One such incident in the town of Clinton involved a nine-year-old girl who was seriously injured when she fell off her bike and into a hidden, 12-foot pit in an abandoned dump. The owner of the dump could only be fined $50 under current state law.
   Graves stressed that, if the amendment passes, the Assembly could set municipal fines on a "sliding scale" so that less severe violations remain in the $50 range.
   However, the ACLU statement on Question 2 pointed out that cities can currently impose fines greater than $50, but city prosecutors must try those cases in state courts.
   "While $50 may be unreasonably low, this wording leaves open the possibility of setting the jury entry level unreasonably high," Weinberg said. "Suppose the Legislature set the level at $5,000 or $50,000? Then the accused would not be able to have his or her case heard by a jury for any fine below that level."
   Like the lottery referendum, the measure to increase municipal fines requires a "yes" vote from 50 percent of the voters who vote in the gubernatorial election.