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In South Florida, more motorists ask judges for break on traffic tickets

Facing traffic fines they say they can't pay, a growing number of South Florida motorists are asking for a break or simply ignoring their citations, judges say.

Court officials in Broward and Palm Beach counties blame the surge on the economy and a steep increase in the cost of fines. For example, the state last year raised the fine for driving 15 mph to 19 mph over the speed limit to $233 from $198.

"The fines and costs have gone up astronomically in the last couple of years. More and more people can't afford them," said Sara Blumberg, an administrative traffic hearing officer in Palm Beach County.

Blumberg said that of the 350 citations her office recently reviewed over the course of a week, about half had letters attached asking for reduction of fines due to either loss of wages or having a home in foreclosure. She said it's a significant jump compared with about two years ago and her office takes those circumstances into account.

But with so many people down on their luck, figuring out who qualifies for a break is not an easy call, said Broward County Court Chief Traffic Magistrate Brenda Di Ioia.

"No one has extra money to pay speeding tickets," said Di Ioia. "But if you have someone who may be homeless, or who hasn't worked in two years, they're a good candidate for community service."

There are options for those who can't come up with a hefty fine. Both Broward and Palm Beach counties offer payment plans of up to 90 days. And drivers can choose to do community service with certain nonprofit groups, credited at a rate of $10 an hour. However, not all fines can be handled this way, and motorists must prove financial hardship.

In Broward, County Court Judge Steven G. Shutter said he's seeing a spike in hardship pleas.

While he had no firm statistics, he said drivers will appear before him and plead not guilty. But instead of denying the charges, they want to make "a plea of sympathy," he said. "Sometimes you have someone who hasn't worked for about a year. Some are embarrassed to ask for community service in court, so they put their request in writing."

Jameir Cheeks recently came before Shutter after being busted for driving on a suspended license. He said his lack of work prompted problems with his child support payments, which then triggered issues with his license.

"I lost my job," said Cheeks, adding he "was looking for temp jobs."

The judge allowed him to donate blood as a form of community service to cover some of the cost. And Cheeks had to prove his license had been reinstated.

Another tactic, said Di Ioia, is that more drivers are requesting a trial in an effort to buy time before they have to pay their fines. That can backfire, she said, because court costs will be higher if the charges are not dismissed.

Broward and Palm Beach counties are also reporting an increase in the number of people ignoring their fines or not showing up in court. That can lead to a driver's license suspension.

"Many are just burying their heads in the sand," said Di Ioia, noting that it is more costly to have licenses reinstated in those cases.

A look at traffic records shows the number of motorists fighting fines went up dramatically for a while as the number of tickets written went down. In the first six months of 2007, about 84,350 people contested their tickets; in the same time frame in 2009, there were 109,000 challengers. This year, the number dropped to 95,671.

Broward was only able to provide figures in a January-June format.

So far this year in Palm Beach County, about 20 percent of motorists have contested their charges, compared with about 11 percent in 2008 and 2009.

But there, the number of tickets issued increased by about 5 percent in 2008 compared with 2007.

John Garrett, of Plantation, said he was trying to see what kind of payment option could be worked out for the $1,300 in fines he received for about a dozen SunPass violations.

What hurts, he said, is the cost of the unpaid tolls is less than $20 total.

"This is ridiculous," said Garrett, who just started a concrete business. "I could be using this money to advertise and bring in more customers."

Georgia East can be reached at geast@SunSentinel.com or 954-572-2078.

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