Posted on Sun, Jan. 29, 2006
A Star Watchdog Report
A defective system gives speeders a pass
By letting offenders plead to lesser violations — some of them several times in a year — judges in Kansas City’s Municipal Court keep dangerous drivers on the road and push insurance rates higher for everyone
By MICHAEL MANSUR
The Kansas City Star
Bad drivers in Kansas City are given a license to speed.
An investigation by The Kansas City Star found that the Municipal Court repeatedly allows thousands of speeders and red-light runners to reduce dangerous moving violations to defective-equipment pleas. That means tickets for serious violations are pleaded down to offenses such as broken taillights, which means no points against a driver’s record.
The legal tactic — called “buying points” — is common in the metro area. But it is spinning out of control in Kansas City. The result? Problem drivers keep on speeding, even when their licenses should be suspended or revoked.
According to a computer-assisted analysis of court records, one lead-footed driver received six defective-equipment pleas in a year’s time. Several drivers received five. Nearly 250 a year get three or more in Kansas City, because there effectively is no limit on how many a defendant can receive.
“As a person who has to share the road with these people, I have to say that’s outrageous,” said Mike Right, a spokesman for AAA Missouri, the statewide affiliate of the national 49 million-member road service agency.
Right acknowledged that it is common for courts to allow a traffic violator to plead down a ticket once or twice a year. “But come on, five times in a year? That’s a little too much love,” he said, adding that even three or four would be excessive.
Other courts in the metro area, The Star found, limit how often they will help a driver avoid points and stay behind the wheel. The strictest courts limit it to one per year.
Kansas City’s point-buying policy also may cost law-abiding drivers. When bad drivers are involved in accidents, everyone’s insurance rates go up, although how much is unclear.
What’s more, false driving records are being created so that bad drivers who are pulled over in other cities appear as if they have clean records when they actually do not, traffic safety experts said.
Some Kansas City Municipal Court judges agree their policy is too lenient.
“All I know is that when I get in my car, the traffic violations occurring in front of me have substantially increased,” said Municipal Judge James Reed, who recently advocated toughening the court’s policy. “If we turn everyone loose, the police can do what they want, but it won’t matter.”
Other Kansas City judges have resisted the reforms, saying they want to see more data on the number of defendants who received defective-equipment pleas last year. Some judges felt that being too strict would only add to insurance company profits and inconvenience defense attorneys.
Yet Presiding Municipal Judge Joe Locascio, after being told of The Star’s findings, said he would push at the judges’ next meeting in February for a tougher policy on defective-equipment pleas.
“I’m concerned that, because of this policy, people are undeterred from violating the city’s traffic code,” said Locascio, who also is worried that the court’s current policy might contribute to more accidents.
Privately, police said the court’s defective-equipment policy frustrates those in law enforcement. But traffic cops and commanders declined to criticize judges publicly, fearing that the judges might retaliate.
City Prosecutor Beth Murano, when informed of the rate of defective-equipment pleas negotiated by her office, said that she wanted to check The Star’s findings to see whether some defendants had received too many pleas under the court’s policy. But Murano said she doubted there was much that prosecutors can do.
“We’re just following the guidelines they’ve (the judges) given us,” Murano said, but she added that she would be happy to work with the judges to tighten the policy.
Currently, a driver older than 21 who hires an attorney and agrees to pay a slightly higher fine can get two defective-equipment reductions in a calendar year. That allows some of the worst drivers to get as many as four in a 12-month period — such as two in December and two in January — without any questions.
If a driver needs even more breaks, he can present evidence to the prosecutor’s office that his speedometer was broken and get two more defective-equipment pleas per calendar year.
But even if a driver lacks proof of a faulty speedometer, there are other ways to finagle a defective-equipment plea. The court’s antiquated computer system, for example, can give prosecutors bad information on a defendant’s record, court officials said.
Attorneys who know how to work the system also can go to several prosecutors in a short time and win a defective plea from each without the others’ knowledge. Because the pleas are not recorded until fines are paid, if an attorney waits until day’s end, no one may notice the multiple reductions.
The point systems that states establish to punish bad drivers assume that those who regularly speed and violate traffic laws present a greater danger to the public, and research backs it up.
One study examined 200,000 licensed drivers in California and found that the risk of accidents increased with the number of violations on the driver’s record. The Missouri Supreme Court, in a case that established the definition of a “habitual traffic offender,” also stated that “a habitual traffic violator is a menace on the public highways.”
Indeed, some drivers with many defective-equipment pleas have terrible traffic records, The Star found. Eight of the nine drivers who received five or six defective-equipment pleas were bad enough to land on a national registry of problem drivers. The registry tracks the worst drivers so that states can avoid granting a license to a driver who has had his privileges revoked in another state.
Those eight drivers had nearly 200 points assessed in Missouri alone. They also racked up 29 license suspensions and nine revocations.
Yet it is difficult to document that the Kansas City court’s practice of handing out so many defective-equipment pleas has increased risks for other drivers. Traffic fatalities in Kansas City are up — jumping 88 percent last year — but police are at a loss to explain the spike. At the same time, however, the overall number of injury accidents declined.
What is clear is that the defective-equipment policy has led to a substantial number of tickets being reduced to nonmoving violations. The Star found that about one in every four tickets written by Kansas City police for hazardous violations — except ones for driving under the influence — are pleaded down to defective equipment.
That means more than 30,000 moving violations a year in Kansas City simply disappear.
Kansas City apparently is a leader in making speeding tickets go away. A study in 2003 by Municipal Court Judge Marcia Walsh found that the court reduced twice as many moving violations, with the exception of DUIs, than all others she surveyed in Missouri.
Overall, she found that the court’s policy of amending moving violations “provides little, if any, inducement to the point-buying driver to protect the commons nor follow traffic laws.”
As might be expected, many Kansas City traffic cops don’t like the reduced pleas, although they are reluctant to talk publicly. Capt. Rich Lockhart, a Police Department spokesman, would only say: “We have to work within the system and plea bargaining is part of that system.”
Capt. Chris Ricks, director of public information for the Missouri Highway Patrol, said he was concerned about what he called a dual justice system that allows defendants who can afford lawyers to get rid of their moving violations.
“I thought justice was supposed to be blind,” Ricks said.
The cost of hiring a lawyer to get a speeding ticket reduced in Kansas City Municipal Court ranges from $100 to $200, according to defense attorneys interviewed by The Star.
A defective-equipment fine can cost a driver about $160 for a first offense, higher than a speeding ticket. Because of that, the plea bargaining increases the revenue stream to city coffers.
But the city loses money in hidden ways. Walsh’s study found that because 28 percent of the tickets written for hazardous moving violations are bargained down, an equal amount of money spent on traffic enforcement — about $700,000 — is wasted.
Walsh noted, however, that these and other costs “represent a transfer to defense attorneys, not a benefit to the city.”
Also as might be expected, defense attorneys in Municipal Court who make a living off the point-buying system think it works just fine and is only fair for the occasional violator.
“Even your grandmother gets a ticket,” said defense attorney John M. Quinn, who negotiates many defective-equipment pleas for his clients.
Still, even Quinn said he thinks that allowing more than two defective-equipment pleas in a year may be inviting speeders to exploit the system. “Three is an abuse,” he said.
But Quinn argued that getting a break on a speeding ticket helps most defendants keep their insurance rates at manageable levels.
In fact, Walsh’s study noted that the financial impact of just a few convictions can be significant, especially for younger drivers. She found that annual insurance payments for a 30-year-old could nearly double to $1,000 a year if that driver is convicted of two moving violations.
Amending moving violations to nonmoving offenses, however, also costs safe drivers more for insurance.
“… Every time the driver with amended no-point violations causes an accident,” Walsh wrote, “the difference between what the premium should have been and what it is must be captured in the increase of rates the company sets for some or all of the rest of its drivers.”
Insurance companies acknowledge that Walsh is correct, but say they think it would only increase other drivers’ rates by a small amount because the increased risks are spread over millions of drivers.
Despite the warning signs, Kansas City municipal judges have wrangled for two years over whether to reform the court’s defective-equipment policy.
In her 2003 study, Walsh recommended limiting defective-equipment pleas to two in a three-year period, increasing the fines and studying whether the practice resulted in more accidents. But judges in early 2004 tabled similar recommendations.
Last year, the court altered its policy slightly, limiting defective-equipment pleas to cases involving speeding 20 mph or less.
Last week, after being informed of The Star’s findings, presiding judge Locascio raised the issue again.
Citing a new study on dangerous driving by AAA, Locascio said “we need to go further to protect the public.”
But some judges oppose any changes, saying it could clog traffic courts and inconvenience defense attorneys. Others complained about insurance companies profiting if every moving violation actually were reported.
“Insurance companies can get all the money they want now,” Judge Elena Franco said. “That’s all this is about.”
Judge John B. Williams agreed. “If you want to be a tool of the insurance companies, go ahead,” he said.
Franco said that stricter enforcement means many drivers would lose their licenses but probably continue to drive anyway. If those drivers caused accidents, she said they probably would not be covered by insurance and that is not in the public’s best interests.
Nonetheless, the judges said they will reconsider the issue next month.
Locascio said he hopes that at the very least the court will abolish allowing two defective-equipment pleas in a calendar year and instead only allow two every 12 months.
“That would appear to work better to protect the public,” he said.
How it’s done
Let’s say you’re driving 60 mph in a 45 mph zone. Police ticket you for speeding. If you just pay the ticket, it will cost you about $100. You also will get 2 points on your driving record. And if you’re a really bad driver, that might be enough points to lose your license.
But if you hire an attorney, he can ask the city prosecutor to amend your ticket to a defective equipment plea, similar to if you had a broken taillight. If the prosecutor agrees, you will pay about $160 for the defective-equipment citation and $100 to $200 for the attorney, depending on what he charges. But you won’t get any points on your driving record, you won’t lose your license and you will avoid a potential increase in your insurance rates.
To assess the courts’ policies on reducing moving violations to nonmoving ones, The Kansas City Star requested from Kansas City Municipal Court all defective-equipment pleas for two time periods — May 2003 to May 2004, and nearly all of calendar year 2005. Using a computer, the newspaper analyzed the number of defective-equipment pleas that each defendant received. The Star found some errors in the court’s data and many entries for some defendants, even for the same moving violation. It removed those entries before calculating totals. In general, the court confirmed the newspaper’s findings. The newspaper requested similar data from the Overland Park Municipal Court.
Almost all moving violations result in points. Avoiding points can help drivers dodge a suspended license or higher insurance rates.
■ In Missouri, a driver’s license may be suspended after he accumulates eight points in an 18-month period. Twelve points in 12 months or 18 points in 24 months can result in the driver’s license being revoked.
■ Moving offenses carry different point penalties in Missouri. A speeding conviction often results in a 2-point assessment against the driver’s record, while driving while intoxicated results in 8 points. Kansas may suspend a license if a driver is convicted of three moving violations in a 12-month period.
■ Convictions are reported by a municipal court to the Revenue Departments in Kansas or Missouri. Insurance companies use that data to adjust the amount a defendant must pay for automobile coverage.