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Dirty license plate leads to $1,590 fine for motorist
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GRANTVILLE, Ga. (AP) — A dirty license plate cost Linda Ford $1,590 that she can't afford.

A Grantville police officer pulled over Ford around 7:30 a.m. on a Saturday last fall, while she was on her way to a church yard sale to raise money for homeless women. The officer pulled her over, he said, because her license place cover had too much tint. It was dirt — not tinting — blown from the car's exhaust that made it difficult to read her plate.

It was then that the police officer for Grantville, in Coweta County, discovered she had not attached an updated decal to her plate to show her registration was current.

Ford showed the officer the decal that had been put in her glove box and forgotten. The police officer said she could explain that when she went to court.

But there are no assurances that explaining such a situation to a judge will be successful since the results of challenging a traffic ticket vary widely from state court to municipal court to recorders court across Georgia.

Some are more forgiving than others.

"Ms. Ford, you can't forget that. You can't forget that kind of stuff," Grantville Municipal Court Judge Lisa Reeves said during the first of two times Ford was in court for the Sept. 5 ticket. "I can suspend your driver's license for not putting your tag on your car."

Ford was ordered to pay $720 — nearly 29 times what other courts levy when a decal is not affixed to a car tag. She was fined as if her registration had been suspended.

Can she pay it today? asked the judge at Ford's Dec. 16 court session.

Ford didn't have the money right then, explaining that she just paid more than $4,800 to repair her 2011 Audi. Could she have 30 days? asked Ford, a 52-year-old Fairburn resident who is a baggage handler at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.

Reeves agreed but warned Ford that her fine would go up if she didn't have the money by then.

By the next time Ford appeared in court she had only saved $480. So, as the judge had warned, Reeves increased the fine to $1,590 and put Ford on probation.

"A simple fine has gone up on you," Reeves said when she announced the tougher punishment.

Sarah Geraghty, an attorney with the Southern Center for Human Rights, said she was surprised that Reeves increased the fine after the sentence had been imposed.

"Not only is it heavy-handed, it's outside the bounds of what the law permits," Geraghty said, adding that a fine cannot be increased after a sentence is set.

Criminal attorney Steve Weiner also was surprised at the doubling of the fine, "which is something I have never heard of and I feel borders on extortion. Additionally, no judge has the authority to impose a fine for a misdemeanor of this kind greater than the statutory limit of $1,000."

While Ford is on probation, she must "avoid persons or places of disreputable character" and cannot move without her probation officer's permission. She must also submit to a breath, urine or blood test if her probation officer orders one, and it will be at her expense.

"Where there is no legitimate reason for a drug test, you have to wonder why a court is ordering this test," Geraghty said. "It's an intrusion into people's privacy, and it burdens them with a financial obligation."

Reeves, a part-time judge, declined to comment on the case.

Many courts issue fines provided for in the Traffic Violations Bureau, a document created 50 years ago that is still used nationwide in some jurisdictions. It lays out the fines for low-level traffic offenses such as improper backing up and parking in the wrong direction, as well as for more serious violations like speeding, running a red light or failing to yield to an emergency vehicle.

For not displaying a decal, Ford's offense, the charge levied by courts in places like Atlanta, Cobb County and Augusta is $25 plus state surcharges that bring the total to just over $39.

But in some courts, the fines or bonds are set by the judge as is the case in Grantville, a west Georgia town of 3,145 that ranks 20th for fines issued per capita. The city fines drivers $160 for not displaying a decal. But Ford was charged a $720 fine for a suspended registration, even though it was up-to-date.

To the casual observer, municipal court hearings can be confusing and move quickly.

In Grantville on the two days that Ford attended, it was even more so.

Court documents show Ford was first charged with having a suspended registration, but it was changed to failing to display a current decal.

In court, however, Reeves would refer to Ford's failure to affix her decal one moment and then the next say her registration had been suspended, even though Ford produced documents showing she had paid for the decal in January.

The second time Ford came to court, on Feb. 9, it was to pay the fine and she only had $480 saved.

Reeves lectured and refused to hear Ford's reasons. The judge then more than doubled the fine and put Ford on 12 months' probation.

"I tried to help her out," the judge said to the court clerk.

Ford now pays more than $170 a month, which includes a $44 fee for a private probation company to collect the fine. Most recently, that monthly payment had to be made when her paycheck for that week was only $277 because she was out of work sick for several days.

"My mortgage (payment) is up. I have (a) power (bill) and everything else," Ford said. "I had put so much money into that Audi, it drained me. And I ended up having to get another car."


Information from: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution,