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Traffic violators won't get refund on years-old fees

The Hillsborough County Clerk of the Circuit Court's longtime way of collecting fines from moving violations has recently come under fire.

Clerk Pat Frank says she's changed her policy to make ticket collection more consumer friendly, and has even refunded those most recently affected by the policy change.

But she has no intention of refunding those who got moving violations before July 1, 2004, including some who were cited as far as 1996, even though they paid their ticket after all moving violations got more expensive.

To do so would mean coughing up some $616,000 to about 22,000 people who received tickets before the rates went up, but didn't pay their fines until after the Aug. 1, 2004, rate hike.

Frank says she doesn't have the money to do it, because the money from old tickets has already been disbursed to the trust funds and other government accounts that divide the fines, as prescribed by state law.

"How do we undo it at this point, when we don't have the money to pay for it?" Frank said in an interview with the St. Petersburg Times on Wednesday.

The whole ticket debate is a little complicated.

Basically, the controversy stems from the way Hillsborough County Clerk of Court's Office has historically collected civil fines on moving violations, such as speeding and running red lights. An inequity develops when the Legislature increases those fines.

Many Florida counties charge and collect whatever the fine was at the time the motorist got the ticket. But Hillsborough County has always charged whatever the civil fine was when the motorist walked in the door to pay it, even if the fine went up after the ticket was issued.

So, as an example, somebody who ran a red light on Sept. 30 who went to pay the ticket Oct. 3, would have been charged $125, even though the fine for the violation was $60 on Sept. 30. The Legislature had increased fines for running red lights by $65 on Oct. 1, as an effort to crack down on people who run them, putting the excess money toward a trust intended to help those who have survived trauma injuries.

A local attorney told Hillsborough County that its policy wasn't fair, and they needed to charge the exact fine in place at the time the motorist got the ticket in their hand.

However, a week ago, a Tallahassee attorney, paid by the Florida Association of Court Clerks, told Hillsborough County that there was nothing illegal about their past practice of collecting the higher fee.

In a Feb. 9 legal letter, attorney Robert McDonald of Greenberg Traurig suggested that there is no state law dictating how clerk's offices should collect the fines.

"We believe Ms. Frank's initial practice, collecting the amount stated in the statute at the time payment was tendered, was proper," McDonald wrote.

Even so, Frank said she changed her policy anyway and, from now on, motorists will be charged based on what the fine was when they got the ticket. She also says she gave back $46,690, issuing 722 checks, to motorists who ran red lights before the fee hike went into effect but paid their ticket after the fee hike.

Now the question is what to do about all the old tickets affected by the 2004 legislative fee hikes.

The people affected are some 21,932 motorists who had been cited with moving violations before July 1, 2004, but didn't pay their fines until after the rates raised by the Legislature went into affect.

Included in that number are motorists who got tickets in June 2004 but paid their tickets later, at the higher rate. But also included in that group are folks charged with violations in the late 1990s, going as far back as 1996, who also chose to pay their ticket after the fines had been increased.

Times news researchers Connie Humburg and Cathy Wos contributed to this reporter.