The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recently released this report on fatal motor vehicle crashes in 2018. The number of traffic fatalities nationwide decreased modestly last year as did the number of alcohol-impaired driving fatalities. In North Carolina, the number of fatalities in both categories modestly increased in 2018. In the aggregate, neither the national nor the state numbers reflect much change in the fatality rate associated with traffic crashes generally or impaired driving-related crashes specifically. While there were precipitous declines in alcohol-impaired driving fatalities from 1982 to 2000, since that time the number of impaired driving-related fatalities has remained rather constant. A similar plateau exists for all types of traffic fatalities, for which the fatality rate per 100 million vehicle miles traveled has remained relatively static for the last decade. This flat trend line has safety advocates wondering what they can do, particularly in the impaired driving context, to push the trend line toward zero.
Tag Archives: traffic
Reducing Impaired Driving 2.0
The court of appeals decided a case today concerning a fact pattern that arises frequently in drug cases.
State v. McKinney began when an officer received a “citizen complaint” about “heavy traffic in and out of” a particular apartment, with the visitors staying only a short time. The citizen stated that he or she had “witnessed individuals exchanging narcotics in the parking lot with the person who lived in the apartment.” The officer set up surveillance on the apartment, and promptly saw an individual arrive, enter the apartment, and leave six minutes later. Another officer followed the visitor and stopped him for a traffic violation. The visitor had a history of narcotics arrests, and his car contained $4,258 and a gallon-sized bag with just 7 grams of marijuana inside. His cell phone showed recent text messages that appeared to concern a drug transaction. For example, about half an hour before the visitor’s arrival at the apartment, he received a text message stating, “when you come out to get the money can you bring me a fat 25. I got the bread.”
The officer obtained a search warrant for the apartment based on the above information. He executed the warrant, finding drugs and guns. The defendant, the occupant of the apartment, was arrested and charged with several offenses. He moved to suppress, arguing that the warrant was not supported by probable cause, but his motion was denied. He pled guilty and appealed.
The court of appeals reversed, ruling that probable cause was absent. It focused on the lack of evidence concerning the inside of the apartment, noting that neither the officer nor the citizen “witnessed any narcotics in or about the apartment,” and stating that although the officer saw the visitor enter the apartment, there was “nothing in his affidavit which suggests that he saw [the visitor] carry marijuana or anything else inside.” The court cited State v. Crisp, 19 N.C. App. 456 (1973) (finding no probable cause where there was heavy traffic into and out of a residence at all hours and a traffic stop of a resident revealed drugs on his person and in his vehicle), and State v. Hunt, 150 N.C. App. 101 (2002) (finding no probable cause where an officer received complaints of suspicious traffic at a residence and verified that a large number of vehicles visited the residence briefly).
This strikes me as a fairly close case that another court might view differently. For example, a Texas appellate court found sufficient probable cause to search a residence based mostly on a stream of short visits to the residence plus nearby outdoor hand-to-hand transactions. Polanco v. State, 475 S.W.2d 763 (Tex. Ct. Cr. App. 1972). But in light of McKinney and its forbears, North Carolina officers should look for factors like an odor associated with controlled substances, a customer’s admission that he or she purchased drugs at the residence, or a controlled buy or other evidence from an informant.
Jeff wrote last week about the court costs associated with traffic infractions, which are significant, even for minor traffic offenses.
As he mentioned, these costs are not the only financial burden imposed upon drivers found responsible for traffic infractions or convicted of traffic offenses. Drivers who seek representation in such proceedings also incur attorney’s fees. Another potentially significant cost, and one in the forefront of most motorists’ minds, is the increase in insurance rates that can result from traffic convictions.
Automobile insurance policies for North Carolina drivers are governed by the Safe Driver Incentive Plan, or SDIP, established pursuant to G.S. 58-36-65. The SDIP distinguishes among classes of drivers that have a record of at-fault accidents, a record of convictions of major moving traffic violations, a record of convictions of minor moving traffic violations, or a combination thereof, and provides for premium differentials among those classes of drivers. Insurers learn of traffic convictions—a term I’ll use throughout this post to refer to both convictions of misdemeanor and felony offenses and adjudications of responsibility for infractions—by obtaining records from DMV. See G.S. 58-36-65(e) (providing that “[r]ecords of convictions for moving traffic violations to be considered under this section shall be obtained at least annually from [DMV]”); see also G.S. 20-4.24(a) (requiring a state that is a member of the Drivers License Compact to report to another member state a conviction for any offense that the member states agree to report”).
The North Carolina Department of Insurance (DOI) publishes this nifty guide to the SDIP, setting forth the insurance points assigned to each type of conviction for a traffic violation and the corresponding rate of increase for those convictions and adjudications. Insurance points are different from driver’s license points assigned by the North Carolina Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) pursuant to G.S. 20-16. Driver’s license points matter because DMV may revoke the driver’s license of a person who accumulates 12 or more license points within three years. G.S. 20-16.5(e). Insurance points matter because of rate increases. A single insurance point, which can result from conviction of a minor moving violation, results in a thirty percent rate increase.
DOI’s guide also describes the SDIP exceptions to rate increases. No insurance points are charged for a single prayer for judgment entered per household every three years. And no insurance points are assessed for conviction of speeding 10 mph or less over the posted speed limit so long as the violation did not occur in a school zone and the person has not been convicted of another moving traffic violation within the three-year experience period.
The easiest way to avoid the assessment of insurance points is, of course, not to commit any traffic violations or cause any accidents. But even drivers who occasionally run afoul of the state’s traffic laws can avoid insurance consequences. Such drivers can seek a prayer for judgment continued or plead guilty to or responsible for an offense that does not result in the assessment of insurance points either due to an explicit statutory exemption or because the offense is not considered a moving traffic violation.
For example, no driver’s license or insurance points may be assessed upon conviction of a speedometer violation under G.S. 20-123.2, which is statutorily denominated “a lesser included offense of speeding,” even though such violations must be recorded in the driver’s official DMV record. See G.S. 20-141(o). Similarly, no insurance points may be assessed for conviction of an improper muffler or several other offenses listed in G.S. 20-16(c). Nor may insurance points be assessed upon conviction of failure to light headlamps while windshield wipers are in use. See G.S. 20-129(a)(4).
Other statutory provisions prohibiting the operation of vehicles without proper equipment are silent with respect to whether insurance points apply. See, e.g., G.S. 20-122.1(a) (requiring every motor vehicle subject to a safety equipment inspection that is operated on a highway be equipped with safe tires and making no mention of driver’s license or insurance points); G.S. 20-24(a)(requiring that every motor vehicle operated on a highway be equipped with adequate brakes and making no mention of driver’s license or insurance points). While there is an argument to be made that such violations could properly be considered moving violations since operation of a motor vehicle is an element of the offense, DMV does not consider equipment violations to be moving violations for driver’s license point purposes. My guess is that insurers interpret the SDIP accordingly and assess insurance points only for offenses deemed moving violations by DMV. Notwithstanding the lack of points, conviction of an improper equipment offense carries its own enhanced cost. An additional $50 in court costs is assessed upon conviction of any improper equipment offense. See G.S. 7A-304(a)(4b). This fee is remitted to the Statewide Misdemeanant Confinement Program, “to provide for contractual services to reduce county jail populations.” Thus, the court costs for a person convicted of an improper speedometer offense is not the $188 Jeff referenced in his earlier post; instead, the court costs total $238.
Court Costs and Traffic Citations
Court costs support many different programs and purposes. The principal statute concerning court costs in criminal cases is G.S. 7A-304. (Under G.S. 15A-1118, these costs also apply to infraction cases.) G.S. 7A-304 establishes various court costs for the support of “courtroom(s) and related judicial facilities,” “courthouse phone systems,” “retirement and insurance benefits [for] . . . law-enforcement officers,” “operations of the Criminal Justice [and Sheriffs’]” training and standards commissions, “pretrial release services,” general support of the court system, and so on.
The state’s budget has been very tight in recent years, and the General Assembly has repeatedly increased existing court costs and created new ones. This AOC document summarizes current court costs. I’d like to focus on the costs associated with traffic infractions, for reasons that will become clear in a moment. Those costs currently total $188 for most cases. (They’re similar for other district court matters, and considerably higher for cases that move to superior court.) To put this in historical perspective, on July 1, 2011, motor vehicle infractions carried costs of $170. As of October 1, 2010, costs were $141. As of September 1, 2009, they were $130. As of July 20, 2008, they were $121. A year earlier, they were $120.
Of course, the true cost to a typical motorist of being cited for an infraction is not limited to court costs. The driver may also pay a lawyer, may miss time from work to attend court, may pay a fine, and may face higher insurance costs.
I heard recently that the number of traffic cases filed has decreased, which has been difficult for some of the organizations supported by criminal court costs. The chart below, based on AOC data, confirms the decline in infraction cases filed. (The vast majority of infraction cases involve motor vehicle offenses.)
One possible explanation for the decline is that some officers are reluctant to issue citations knowing that court costs are so high. In other words, some officers may be issuing more warnings and fewer citations based on a feeling that the cost of a citation has gotten out of proportion to the seriousness of a typical moving violation. There is, in fact, a temporal correlation between the run-up in court costs and the decline in infraction cases. However, correlation does not prove causation, and there are other possible explanations.
Drivers could be committing fewer offenses, either because they are driving less or because they are driving more carefully. I doubt that this is the case, however. Traffic volume has been about the same since 2009, according to the United States Department of Transportation, so people are not driving less. I suppose that it is possible that people are driving more carefully, but I haven’t noticed that in my time on the roads.
Officers could be detecting fewer offenses, perhaps because law enforcement agencies, faced with limited budgets, are doing less traffic enforcement. This strikes me as a more plausible explanation, supported somewhat by the fact that criminal motor vehicle case filings are also down, from a bit over 1.1 million in FY2010-11 to a bit under 1 million in FY2011-12. I doubt that many officers would choose to forego a criminal traffic violation out of concern for court costs, since criminal violations are typically more serious than infractions. The decline in filings of this type therefore suggests that officers may simply be detecting fewer violations.
Officers could be writing fewer citations for some other reason besides higher costs. For example, if the paperwork associated with writing a citation had recently become much more cumbersome, officers might be writing fewer citations to avoid the drudgery, or because so many hours were spent pushing paper and not enforcing the law. I’m not aware of any change of that nature, however.
Readers, what do you make of this data? Are there explanations that I’m missing? Officers, has the rise in court costs made you more hesitant to issue a citation?
As a final note, the data presented above don’t reach the separate question of whether judges are waiving costs more often as they have risen. That’s also an interesting question, but it will have to wait for a future post.