By Don Davis
Seven Minnesota counties and 10 cities continue to offer a program allowing motorists to take driving safety classes and keep minor traffic tickets from going on their records, even though the state auditor says the Legislature must first authorize the programs and a Wabasha County judge earlier this month ruled programs in his area are illegal.
Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, is offering legislation to penalize local governments that continue the programs.
“Make no mistake, the local units of government that profited from these illegal programs did so out of greed,” said Drazkowski, who lives in Wabasha County and has been embroiled in a political battle there surrounding the “traffic citation diversion” program.
The lawmaker’s bill would force governments to refund money drivers paid to take the classes and slap fines on programs that continue.
Drazkowski said the local governments conducting the programs keep the profits. He said the Wabasha County program that stopped after the judge’s ruling charged $125 for the class, the highest in the state.
A law he helped pass in 2009 also would give motorists a way to keep minor traffic infractions off their records, and thus out of insurance companies’ sight. That law allows a motorist to pay a $60 fine to keep the ticket off a driver’s record, but does not require a class.
Under his law, local governments and the state share the $60 fine.
The 2009 state law gives motorists a way to contest tickets, but Drazkowski said the ones he calls illegal have no such provision.
Many cities and counties dropped or suspended their diversion programs after the early-January court hearing.
Norman County Sheriff Jeremy Thornton said that after discussing the practice with their county attorney, officials suspended their practice of giving courses. He said officials will wait to see what the Legislature does.
Red Wing also halted its program to be on the safe side.
“At this point, our program is legal,” Red Wing Council President Lisa Bayley said.
Provisions of the Red Wing program were not identical to the one in Wabasha County, which also served Lake City, Plainview and the city of Wabasha.
“Certainly the conservative approach would be to stop the program and see how it all plays out,” Red Wing City Attorney Amy Mace said.
Executive Director James Franklin of the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association said that the programs’ classes are effective. Sheriffs support diversion programs and feel they are legal, he added.
“We feel very strongly that this is a program based on traffic safety,” he said.
Franklin said that Drazkowski’s bill would lower funds collected from minor traffic offenses, which could force up taxes.
“I find it rather surprising that Drazkowski, who is a Republican and tea party (member) is advocating for a tax increase,” Franklin said.
The program has been so successful that at least one businessman in Kandiyohi County asked the sheriff’s office to put on a similar drivers’ class for all of its employees, he said.
Drazkowski’s bill not only would fine a city or county still operating its own diversion program, but would take from a city’s state aid payments twice what it charged drivers for classes.
“This is a very, very serious matter,” he said, saying that some people have called the programs racketeering and embezzlement.
Counties that Rep. Steve Drazkowski says are continuing their traffic citation diversion program after a judge ruled one in Wabasha County was illegal: Chippewa, Grant, Sibley, Chisago, Kandiyohi, Meeker and Wright. Cities that are continuing their programs: Circle Pines, Ashby, Buffalo, Clara City, Lexington, Coon Rapids, Centerville, Howard Lake, Lino Lakes and Wyoming.
Counties that Drazkowski says suspended or stopped their programs just before or after the judge’s ruling: Sherburne, Red Lake, Norman, Goodhue, Wabasha, Lac qui Parle, McLeod and Renville. Cities that suspended programs: North Branch, Big Lake, Becker, Ada, Twin Valley, Grand Rapids, Lake City, Plainview, Wabasha, Red Wing and Fairfax.