Armed with a judge's order and a decade of warnings that offering safe-driving classes for a fee instead of traffic tickets is illegal, a group of Minnesotans are suing to get their money back.
In a class-action lawsuit filed Thursday, nine plaintiffs are demanding that 36 cities and counties across the state return at least $2 million raised through the classes. The lawsuit comes as legislators take a closer look at revamping the laws to keep the diversion programs legal.
Attorney Erick Kaardal, representing the group, said the public doesn't understand how the state auditor, attorney general and the courts can tell law enforcement officials repeatedly that the diversion programs are illegal, yet the programs continue to be offered, typically by police and sheriff's departments. "Are they law enforcement officers or are they law-violating officers?" Kaardal asked. "What is the role of a police chief or a county sheriff if not to follow the law?"
The programs allow drivers to keep tickets off their records in exchange for paying to take a class ranging in price from $75 to $125. Between 2010 and 2012, the classes raised $1.6 million, according to a report by State Auditor Rebecca Otto.
Typically, a third of the fees generated from traffic tickets goes to the state to help fund the criminal justice system. Fees from the driving classes, however, are usually kept by the jurisdictions offering the classes.
Otto has warned over and over that such "off the books" alternatives are illegal. In January, District Judge James Fabian ordered the Wabasha County safe driving class to a halt after two county commissioners, also represented by Kaardal, sued. The commissioners alleged that law enforcement for years had flouted a state law that prohibits such classes. Fabian called the program "a continued and repeated trespass on the laws of the state of Minnesota."
In the two months since Fabian's ruling, 24 remaining cities and counties shuttered or suspended their safe driving classes. Twelve remain in operation, including the counties of Chippewa, Sibley, Chisago, Meeker and Wright, and the cities of Circle Pines, Buffalo, Clara City, Lexington, Coon Rapids, Centerville and Lino Lakes.
The programs are popular both with drivers, who can avoid a black mark on their record and possibly higher insurance premiums, as well as police and sheriffs, who use the money to supplement their departments' budgets.
Beverly Snow, who as secretary for the Association for Government Accountability is a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said that shouldn't matter.
"Why rewrite the law to accommodate something that was illegal?" she said.
Making it legal
The lawsuit was filed in the Third Judicial District in southern Minnesota the day after a bipartisan effort by Sens. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, and Torrey Westrom, R-Elbow Lake, to revamp the programs.
Schmit's bill would allow agencies to operate the classes for a maximum fee of $75, then use all the proceeds for running the classes. Westrom's bill caps class fees at $100, with at least half used for law enforcement purposes. Schmit said the programs have value, but should not become a source of revenue.
"There's no doubt in my mind that a lot of local law enforcement agencies are underfunded, but this issue has to be separate from that and has to focus on driver safety," Schmit said. "This is a useful tool for law enforcement and for many motorists."
In Goodhue County, which suspended its class two weeks after the Wabasha ruling, County Attorney Stephen Betcher declined to discuss the pending lawsuit, but said his county, like many others, eagerly awaits a legislative outcome.
"Our position has always been that we operated the program entirely from county resources, so that's how we justified the retention of the proceeds," Betcher said.
He said he supports some points brought up during discussions of the program, such as creating a statewide system that tracks those who take the diversion classes. Such a system could detect whether a single driver is using the classes to evade multiple citations in other counties.
Kaardal said that even if the classes become legal, the class-action lawsuit will continue based on former policies, and he's seeking more members who may have taken such classes.
James Wyman opted to take a safe driving class after he was stopped for speeding in downtown Red Wing three years ago. He said the class made him a better driver and he hasn't gotten a ticket since.
"Who should get revenue from that is not my concern," Wyman said. "It was a good thing for me." He said that's why he won't join the lawsuit.
"I got what I paid for," he said. "They said they would keep it off my record and they did. I wouldn't want my money back."