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Program targeting traffic-fine scofflaws is unfair and should be repealed, Anchorage ombudsman says

An Anchorage police officer conducts a traffic stop. (Loren Holmes / ADN file)

Anchorage’s ombudsman is calling on the city Assembly to repeal the traffic-fine scofflaw program, saying it is inequitable and not the public safety boon the city intends it to be.

But Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz and other city officials are standing behind the program, arguing it makes the roads safer.

Ombudsman Darrel Hess made his request through a memo sent Wednesday to the Anchorage Assembly and city officials. Hess has criticized the program several times over the past decade, but he has never recommended shuttering the program, as he did this week. Hess said it is the only time in his seven-year tenure that he has recommended repealing city code.

The scofflaw program allows the Anchorage Police Department to impound any vehicle driven by someone with at least $1,000 in delinquent traffic fines. The city implemented the program in 2007.

Hess took aim at the city’s interpretation of a “moving violation” as it relates to the scofflaw program. He also said the program has an outsized impact on low-income drivers and unfairly impacts people who have their cars impounded after they lent them to scofflaws.

Berkowitz on Thursday said he still thinks the scofflaw program is a good idea.

“In our experience, there is a positive effect in terms of public safety in that it enforces ideas of personal responsibility," he said.

However, Hess and some Assembly members have criticized the program because it is easier for offenders with higher incomes to get off the scofflaw list.

“If they are the worst of the worst one day, how can they be safe to operate a vehicle the next day simply by paying more?” Hess wrote in his memo.

The scofflaw list is automatically updated each day so police have current information. It usually has about 3,500 names on it. Some people on the list have dozens of infractions dating back more than a decade, while others have a single speeding ticket.

In reviewing the program, Hess found examples where he thought the program was harmful. One was an elderly woman on a fixed income who lent her car to her grandson. Her grandson had a valid driver’s license but was also on the scofflaw list. The grandson was pulled over and the car was seized. The woman paid $600 to $700 to get the car out of impound, Hess stated in the memo.

Another example was an employer who checked the driving record of an employee before they drove a company vehicle. The employee had no violations for the previous five to 10 years. But the employee did have unpaid fines from more than a decade back. Police stopped the employee and the company car was impounded. The employer had never heard of the scofflaw list, according to Hess.

In the memo, Hess said the city doesn’t have data to support its argument that the program deters dangerous drivers. Berkowitz pointed out that Hess also relies on anecdotal evidence in his assessment.

“While he raises some interesting points about equity … it was light on evidence and it was also missing the kind of rigorous legal analysis the municipality needs before making a policy decision," Berkowitz said of the memo.

Over the summer, the city convened a working group to study the program, aiming to determine whether it is effective and fair. The results were presented to the Assembly on Jan. 17.

During the meeting, former municipal attorney Becky Windt Pearson said the working group was unable to answer many questions, but did determine the program appeared to limit reoffending to some degree. Windt Pearson also said people living in Mountain View were more likely to be on the scofflaw list than others.

“In a very basic, commonsense way, we know this has more of an impact on people of a lower income, because they can’t get their fines paid," Assemblyman Forrest Dunbar said in response to the data. "It’s obvious.”

Windt Pearson and the working group suggested the Assembly take a look at the program and potentially find a way to give the public more notice about payment plans to avoid delinquent court fines. They also suggested lowering the cost of getting a seized vehicle out of impound.

During the work session, Anchorage Police Capt. Mike Kerle made several arguments in favor of the scofflaw program.

“I looked at the list of the top 50 offenders. I know these names because not only are these traffic offenders, but a lot of these people on here are the most violent and prolific offenders in the city," Kerle said. “A lot of these people are really bad people. I’m talking really, really bad people.”

Kerle told the Assembly that based on his experience, the threat of seizure changes behavior even if the scofflaws continue to drive.

“I guarantee the people who still drive who are on the scofflaw list, there are quite a few that still drive, but they’re not dangerous drivers anymore," Kerle said. "They recognize the risk of losing their car. They are forced to, by us, recognize the legitimacy of our traffic laws.”

Windt Pearson said the working group reviewed the rate of offense for the 50 people on the list with the most citations, finding a slight reduction in re-offense rates.

Assembly member Dunbar was skeptical of that finding.

“We can come up with tons of confounding factors as to why that might be the case." Dunbar said.

Forty percent of scofflaw violations are equipment and paperwork violations discovered by an officer while the car is in motion, according to Lance Wilber, director of the city’s Office of Budget and Management. In the memo, Hess criticized the city for including those offenses in the program, pointing out that the Division of Motor Vehicles does not view those as moving violations.

Criminal traffic offenses like criminally negligent homicide, manslaughter, second-degree murder (Alaska does not have a vehicular homicide statute) and driving under the influence do not count toward the scofflaw list.

“But unpaid fines for burned-out headlights and taillights are counted,” Hess stated.

Hess said using a broad interpretation of “moving violation” runs contrary to the city’s claim that the program is solely for public safety, not debt collection.

“We do not enforce laws as a revenue measure," Berkowitz said. "That is not a factor at all.”

The DMV is in the process of implementing a scofflaw statute passed in 2019 by the Alaska Legislature. That program would revoke driving privileges for someone with $1,000 in unpaid fines for moving violations but would not seize vehicles. In the memo, Hess argues the city’s program isn’t necessary with the state changes.

The mayor disagreed.

“I am a believer in less state overreach, not more," Berkowitz said.

After reading Hess’ memo, Assembly members Chris Constant and Meg Zaletel said they want to hear more from police about the potential impacts of shuttering the city’s scofflaw program.

Based on that input, they said, they plan to introduce an ordinance tweaking or repealing the program this spring.

“I’m guessing in the end Darrel (Hess) is correct," Constant said. "That the ends are irreconcilable with the means.”

Berkowitz said he is sympathetic to some of the examples of the scofflaw program impacting people, such as the stories Hess put in his memo.

But he said people need to respect the law.

“It’s about making sure people are personally responsible for following the law and paying what they owe,” he said. "It’s about personal responsibility.”