In some Minnesota cities, often for a fee, prosecutors let lead-footed motorists keep their records clean.
Drivers busted for zooming too fast along Minnesota streets and highways may groan at the cost of a speeding ticket, but a growing percentage of them are finding ways to keep those violations off their driving records -- often by paying extra.
Motorists with no recent driving infractions are taking advantage of little-known court deals in which they pay a sometimes-hefty fee and keep their records clean as long as they don't get caught disobeying traffic laws too quickly again. In some cities in Hennepin County, for instance, the drivers can end up paying more than double the price of the ticket.
"It's a loophole," said Jeff Hochstein, a 43-year-old self-described habitual speeder, who said he has sought and received the deal several times throughout his driving career in an attempt to keep his insurance rates lower. "There's ways to buy your way out of it."
Last year, nearly 16,200 speeders kept a ticket off their driving records, court data show. That's 8 percent of all speeding tickets, up from 6 percent in 2004.
Besides added revenue, the deals help keep court calendars from getting clogged with traffic cases, some prosecutors say. Still, some critics worry they give a pass to speeders -- one of the nation's deadliest road hazards -- even as legislators consider a bill to keep more speeding tickets off driving records. The deals, allowed in some cities but not others, raise questions of fairness and governmental policy.
"To me, that's bribery," said Sharon Gehrman-Driscoll, director of Minnesotans for Safe Driving. "What message are we sending our kids? Daddy's going to pay this ticket but he's gonna pay a little more so then no one knows about it? ... I think as a society we need to always be as fair as we possibly can."
Paying for a break
In Hennepin County, most cities allow qualified drivers to get a deal, called a continuance for dismissal, simply by going to the courthouse and getting the OK from a hearing officer. The ticket's fines and fees are dismissed and replaced by "prosecution costs" which go entirely to the city, along with a state surcharge. The total bill can run as high as $325 in some cities, far above the $145 or so that the speeding ticket would have cost.
If the driver doesn't violate traffic laws for a specified amount of time -- often a year -- the ticket is dismissed. If the driver is convicted, both tickets will appear on the record.
Prosecutors who issue the deals say they are giving relatively law-abiding drivers a break and encouraging them to drive with care in the future.
Each city sets its own parameters for which speeding situations qualify for a continuance. Many require that there was no accident, that the driver cooperated with police and wasn't going more than 15 or 20 miles per hour over the limit.
Minnetonka prosecutor Rolf Sponheim called it a compromise; motorists have to pay more while the city is "compromising our goal of having the person's driving record reflect their driving conduct."
Attorney Steve Tallen, a long-time prosecutor for several cities in Hennepin County, makes no apologies for charging prosecution costs of $250 in speeding cases.
"It should be more than paying the ticket because they're getting a better deal," Tallen said.
Not all cities or counties are on board with the process, though. Mounds View and New Brighton, in Ramsey County, don't offer the deals.
Attorney Tom Hughes, prosecutor in both cities, said he decided against the continuances partly because speeders are among the top complaints at community meetings.
As for the cities that charge extra to keep a ticket off a driving record? "That's sort of a little extortion on their part," Hughes said. "You pay a lot of money and we'll let you out. If you do that for all offenses, it really wouldn't be a very equitable way of doing things."
Tallen said he and other prosecutors are careful to make sure the benefit isn't just for the wealthy, though. He allows people the option to work off the tab through community service.
Tallen said he wasn't in favor of offering continuances at first, but judges urged him to cut down the number of cases going to trial. "We got tremendous pressure from the bench to get rid of cases," he said. "That's the only reason I did it."
'Feels like a shakedown'
The fees paid to keep the ticket off a person's record vary vastly around the metro area, where such deals are more common.
When drivers simply pay a speeding ticket, the fine of $40 to $300 is set by the state, in most cases, and the money is divided among state and local governments. The state tacks on a $75 surcharge for the general fund. Cities and county governments may add various other fees.
In many cases where drivers get deals, city and county governments set their own prices. Recently, the state added its $75 surcharge to those deals, too.
The city of St. Paul typically sets its price at $100 above the ticket cost, including the state surcharge, according to a court official there. Ramsey County's suburban cities that allow the deals typically charge $176 total, the official said.
In Dakota County, prosecutors typically use a slightly different legal method of keeping tickets off records, called a stay of adjudication. Drivers there end up paying a range of penalties, typically adding a $25 prosecution fee for attorneys to check their driver's record later, court officials said.
In some places, the deals can apply not just to speeding, but other traffic infractions as well, from having marijuana in a motor vehicle to seat belt violations.
Ticketed in Minneapolis for rolling slowly through a stop sign and having an old address on his drivers license, Jared Stanley went to Hennepin County's Ridgedale courthouse last month to try to fight it.
A hearing officer offered to let him pay $200 instead of $100, he said as he exited the hearing room. He decided to set a court date instead.
"It feels like a shakedown, kind of," Stanley said. "It's basically saying, 'If you have money, you can get out of the ticket,' ... The people who can't pay it because they can't afford it have to pay more in insurance costs. I think that's a little unfair."
Softening the consequences
Some say that, besides arguments of fairness, the practice poses a safety issue. Illegal or unsafe speeds are the leading contributing factor in single-vehicle crashes, according to the state Department of Public Safety.
Authorities want drivers to comply with safe speed limits voluntarily, said State Patrol Lt. Col. Matt Langer.
"Softening the potential consequence of these laws maybe doesn't encourage people to voluntary comply as much," Langer said.
For that reason, the patrol has also opposed legislation that would automatically keep more tickets off drivers' records. Now, most Minnesota drivers' records don't record tickets for speeding up to 10 miles over the limit in a 55 mile per hour zone. Lawmakers are now considering a proposal to do the same in a 60-mph zone.
Keeping speeding tickets off a person's record to keep their insurance rates low unfairly burdens speed limit-abiding drivers who are subsidizing their rates, said Mark Kulda, of the Insurance Federation of Minnesota.
"You're not able to find out which ones are truly engaging in risky driving behavior," Kulda said.
Pam Louwagie • 612-673-7102