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Court - Magistrates undercharging

July 01, 2007|By MATTHEW UMSTEAD

MARTINSBURG, W.VA.-The cost of a speeding ticket conviction in Berkeley County recently inched a little higher, and motorists found guilty of a second citation will have to pay substantially more in court costs alone.

At the behest of the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia, magistrates across the state have been directed to charge $160.50 in court costs per conviction, not per ticket. For a two-citation conviction, such as speeding and failure to properly signal, a motorist will be ordered to pay $321 in court costs, not including the actual fines.

"We always assumed that a ticket issued was one charging document, so it would be one court cost (assessed)," said Berkeley County Magistrate Joan V. Bragg, who has served as a magistrate for nearly 20 years. "That was how I was taught from the time I came here."

In a memo sent to magistrates across the state last month, the high court noted a 1976 law detailing the application of the court cost assessment and affirmation of the state code by Supreme Court justices in 1999.

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"If people don't like it, then the law needs to be changed," said Jennifer Bundy, spokeswoman for the state Supreme Court. "People can avoid this by not breaking the law."

Bundy couldn't say how many magistrates were complying with the statute, and Bragg said she believed most were not following the law.

"When the 'Unified Judicial Application' computer system is online, there will be no more questions about this," Bundy said. "The computer system will keep an accurate track."

Bundy said the pilot project for the new system begins in August in Greenbrier County, but the entire system is not slated to be online until 2010.

Ruby Kay Hawkins, clerk of the Magistrate Court for Berkeley County for nearly 30 years, said she has watched the amount of court costs and fines practically triple.

According to an audit of the court for the 2005 calendar year, the amount of fines and court costs topped $1.88 million. The court cost charge then was $153.50.

"You should see a big difference next year, unless people stop getting tickets," Hawkins said.

Hawkins was unable to provide exact calculations to show how the change in application of court costs would have affected the total amount of revenue generated.

In the first 11 months of the 2006-07 fiscal year, beginning one year ago today, Berkeley County Magistrate Court processed 5,037 tickets that had a total of 6,617 individual charges listed on them, according to records.

Though every charge filed in that time frame did not result in a conviction, Hawkins estimated that application of the high court's interpretation of the 1976 law could have generated between $50,000 and $100,000 in additional revenue.

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