Operation Thunder continued its gradual move this week from the streets of Augusta to the Richmond County courthouse, with hundreds of thousands of dollars in traffic fines being pumped back into local government.
For every citation issued during the three-month enforcement blitz, more than 13,000 police officers, sheriffs and Superior Court clerks across Georgia will see a slight increase in their retirement pay.
Two dollars go to the each of the state retirement funds for Georgia’s 159 elected sheriffs and Superior Court clerks, including Richmond County’s own Richard Roundtree and Elaine S. Johnson.
The profits are higher for the officers issuing tickets. State records show they get 5 percent of paid traffic fines, through a pension known as the Georgia Peace Officers’ Annuity and Benefit Fund.
The General Assembly and Gov. Herman Talmadge created the Peace Officers’ Annuity and Benefit in 1950 as a supplemental retirement fund. Today, the account has 13,942 active members, a retirement roll of 4,525 officers and assets nearing $580 million.
“The fund is not an incentive to write traffic tickets, by any stretch,” Executive Director Bob Carter said. “Most officers do not even realize the fund is in part funded by traffic ticket fines.”
Carter said Wednesday that the pension this year added 313 certified law enforcement officers from city, county and state agencies. The maximum monthly benefit a member can receive after a 30-year membership is $732.30.
Though the profits might seem marginal, fines can add up quickly. During Operation Thunder, 2,290 citations were issued for various offenses, including impaired driving, seat-belt violations and suspended licenses.
The court system collected $404,062 in criminal fines, advance ticket payments and partial fees in May, the first month Operation Thunder defendants began appearing before a judge.
Though the May total was less than the amount collected in March ($483,545) and April ($468,033), the numbers are expected to pick up for June and July, when the bulk of Operation Thunder’s payment deadlines and court hearings are scheduled.
For example, Jerry Spalding was ticketed for traveling 60 mph on a 45 mph stretch along Tobacco Road in Hephzibah on April 1. More than two months later, his case is just now making it to court.
“I understand there is a big ticket blitz,” Spalding said. “If the county is going to get some extra money, I hope they make sure it goes where it is supposed to go.”
Before a traffic fine makes it back to local coffers, fees from the base fine are cut four ways, with victim restitution coming first, said Kristy Key, the accounting supervisor at the Richmond County Clerk of Court’s office. Five percent of that base fine goes to the Peace Officers’ Annuity and Benefit Fund and $2 goes to each of the state retirement funds for sheriff and Superior Court clerk.
The state levies a surcharge on top of all citations and takes home 40 percent of the ticket price to finance peace officer and prosecutor training, indigent defense costs, jail construction and staffing, local victim assistance programs and county law libraries.
After all state fees are paid, the Richmond County General Fund sees its share.
“This priority schedule and all of the funds apply to any criminal offense,” Key said. “It does not matter if a person is fined in Superior or State Court for a misdemeanor or felony charges.”
Additional charges are collected by the state to fund driver education, brain and spinal injury trusts, and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s Crime Lab.