The problem is that the public in general don’t understand how things are supposed to work. Traffic authorities feed them half-truths, and the media unquestioningly run mindless stories about the “millions??? owed to the authorities in “outstanding fines???.
What is happening now has nothing to do with road safety, and every-thing to do with raising revenue to fill municipal budgets’ shortfalls. The truth is that, in their rush to the trough, the law-enforcers are counting their chickens very much before they’re hatched. A fine is outstanding only once a court of law has secured a conviction, or the accused has signed an admission of guilt and agreed to pay the stipulated fine. Until then, all that exists is an untested allegation of wrongdoing, and, of those that have been tested, many have failed because of errors and non-compliance with speed-trapping laws.
The procedure — as it should be — is actually very simple. Traffic cops catch motorists breaking the law. They issue the wrongdoer with a summons, requiring that he appear in court on a certain date to defend himself against the charge and the accused signs an acknowledgment that he has received the summons and is aware of the implications of ignoring it. If he wants to save time and pay an admission of guilt fine before the court date he can do so. Until he is convicted or signs the admission of guilt, he is, as our politicians love to remind us every time one of them is caught with his fingers in the till, “innocent until proven guilty???. He owes the traffic department nothing before that time. Zilch. Zip.
If a summons has been properly served, however, and the culprit fails to either pay an admission of guilt fine or pitch up for the court case on the appointed date, the magistrate will issue a warrant for his arrest on an additional charge of contempt of court. This does not, incidentally, mean that he’s automatically presumed guilty of committing the original offence — he’s still entitled to defend himself against that charge. He also has the right to offer an explanation for his previous non-appearance in court.
That’s the way things should be, but that all seems to be too much like hard work for our custodians of the law. Policing today consists mostly of sitting under a tree while a camera does the job. Photographs are downloaded after the event, and begging letters disguised as summonses are sent to the accused through the post. If he pays up the problem goes away for him and the spoils are richer for them.
The problem for our traffic departments, however, arises when the transgressor doesn’t meekly pay. In that case the police are supposed to visit his home or workplace to serve a proper summons upon him or his representative and he can then decide whether to pay the admission of guilt fine or defend himself against the charges. The “summons??? delivered through the post has no legal standing, yet traffic departments around the country insist on sending out these bogus documents in the hopes of intimidating motorists into coughing up. They know they’re doing wrong, but persist because most people simply pay.
So what happens if you do receive a pseudo summons in your post-box and decide to defend yourself? Actually nothing, except for your time being wasted, because the system is purposely designed to frustrate you. When you arrive at the appointed court on the due date you’ll be disappointed to find that your case isn’t even on the roll — it can’t be, because a legal summons has not yet been served. Instead you’ll be directed to a grubby office in the bowels of the municipal traffic court where a traffic officer will hold out his hand in the hopes that you’ll pay the fine. If you inform him that you want to defend yourself he’ll act surprised and tell you to go home and wait for a properly delivered summons. At this point most people decide that they’ve wasted enough time and hand over the ransom money.
Most of the traffic authorities’ resources these days are directed at money-gathering rather than road safety. In fact, the cops are kept so busy harvesting their loot that they’ve contracted out many policing functions to private companies who operate camera traps for profit — and you thought law enforcement was about road safety! Motorists are bombarded with news reports about roadblocks being set up to catch people with “outstanding fines??? and telling them that various structures have been put in place to make payment more convenient. Of course, no action is ever taken to make it easier for an accused to defend himself in court. Websites have even been set up to allow motorists to log on and check if they have any outstanding “fines???, and then pay them electronically to avoid arrest. Ever heard of muggers and burglars being asked to contact the cops to see if they’re wanted?
The media has been remiss here, running their stories straight from the authorities’ press releases, without telling their readers that they CANNOT legally be detained unless a warrant has been issued, and a warrant cannot be issued unless a proper summons has been delivered and signed for. Thousands of South Africans read these stories and live in dread of being thrown into some dank cell for the weekend because the traffic authorities never did their job properly.
Sometimes the authorities’ “debt collecting??? efforts are not without humour, albeit unintentional. In announcing the rollout of Durban’s “EasyPay??? system in 2003, acting Deputy Head of the Metro Police, Amanda Clark, stated that the system was the first step in “offering our customers convenience. We are committed to continuous improvement in our customer service levels and the benefits of the fully implemented common system will be enjoyed by year-end???. What about implementing a more convenient process for the contesting of fines?
Things are steadily getting worse. Last month Johannesburg Metro Police announced that they’re equipping trailers with mobile summons-printing and warrant-faxing equipment for use at roadblocks. The trailers are also equipped with an online payment system, which will allow motorists to swipe their debit or credit cards and clear the books immediately. The real question here is who is paying for all of this very expensive technology, when good on-road policing would have ensured that miscreants were properly summonsed on the spot? And will the drivers pulled into the net be told that they don’t have to pay, but can sign for a summons and defend themselves in court at a later date? Judging on past performance, I’d say not.
My point is not that we should live in a state of anarchy. It’s simply that drivers are expected to conform to the law and we expect the same from the authorities. We shouldn’t allow them to strut into restaurants demanding diners’ identity documents so they can check for “outstanding fines???, as they recently did in Johannesburg, and we shouldn’t let them intimidate us with threats that we’ll spend the weekend sitting in jail because we choose to await a lawful summons rather than pay an admission of guilt fine on the strength of a bogus summons delivered via the post.