Originally created 09/19/00

Penalties can vary for traffic violators



Speeding is illegal all over Georgia and South Carolina, but where you speed can determine how much getting caught will cost.

Driving 85 in a 55 mph zone can cost you as little as $125 or more than $300, depending on whether you're in McDuffie County or Augusta.

Traffic cash-bond amounts, fines and fees and court procedures vary from one jurisdiction to another because they are set by local officials.

And judges have a lot of discretion to reduce or increase the customary bond amounts or fines, although such offenses have mandatory minimum and maximum fines set by the state Legislature.

Drivers caught speeding 30 mph over the limit in Augusta must post a $625 bond and go to court, where they might be fined $375, according to a Richmond County State Court fee schedule.

Those caught speeding more than 100 mph in Burke County must post a $575 property bond and go to court, where the judge sets the fine, according to the county's fine list.

Speeding more than 30 mph over the limit in Atlanta equires a court appearance and a fine of not less than $300 or more than $1,000.

Reckless drivers who catch a deputy's eye in Richmond County must post a $1,200 bond and go to court, where a judge sets the fine. A reckless-driving charge in Burke County requires a $230 property bond, a court appearance and a fine. In Columbia County, the customary fine for reckless driving is $625, compared with adjoining McDuffie County, where the customary fine is $250. And in Aiken County, the suggested bond for reckless driving is $150.

In Richmond County, State Court Chief Judge Gayle Hamrick sets the cash-bond lists with input from Solicitor Sheryl Jolly.

A number of factors go into the process, beginning with the state Legislature, which establishes maximum fines, Chief Judge Hamrick said.

"Other than that, it's just the discretion of the person setting and establishing it," he said. "It's the same discretion you would have in court if somebody appeared in front of you.

"Of course, you look around in other areas in setting them. I've done that. Most judges or officials setting them do. I think we're probably higher than some and lower than some."

Augusta's traffic-bond amounts are higher in many categories because of the city's traffic problem caused by violators. According to the Governor's Office of Highway Safety, Richmond County has one of the highest accident rates in Georgia, higher than the state's largest metro area, Fulton County.

"And I think all the accident statistics bear that out, too," Chief Judge Hamrick said. "I think we're one of the highest in the state with accidents here."

Last year, Richmond County State Court took in about $6 million, and most of that was from traffic-related cases, Mrs. Jolly said.

In Burke County, State Court Judge George Fryhofer, Solicitor Marion Cotton and Sheriff Greg Coursey set the schedule. In Waynesboro, police Chief Karl E. Allen and Recorder's Court Judge Percy Blount decide it.

Probate Court Judge Gene Wells sets the fines for Thomson and McDuffie County, Judge Wells said.

For certain types of traffic offenses, such as improper parking or running a stop sign, drivers can forfeit a cash bond - and many do - instead of going to court.

"We're not charging a fine. We're charging a cash bond, and you can forfeit the bond instead of coming to court," Burke County Chief Deputy James Hollingsworth said.

Traffic court judges have great latitude in meting out justice.

Monday, 62-year-old John Murray, a disabled veteran, was in Richmond County State Court charged with running a red light and colliding with a car, totaling both vehicles, according to court testimony.

State Court Judge David Watkins put Mr. Murray on 12 months' probation, fined him $125 but suspended the fine and warned him not to drive any more until he passed a driver's test. Judge Watkins directed court officials to put Mr. Murray in contact with an agency for assistance. Judge Watkins postponed a decision on restitution for the woman driving the other vehicle, pending the outcome of an insurance settlement.

In the case of 17-year-old Jennifer Brown, charged with violation of a provisional driver's permit and not wearing a seat belt, Judge Watkins ordered 12 months' probation, two of which would be supervised, and 10 hours of community service. He also ordered her to maintain an A or B average in school and abide by a 7 p.m. curfew weeknights and her mother's house rules, including attending Sunday school.

"As long as she follows your household rules and orders, she doesn't have to come back here," Judge Watkins told Ms. Brown's mother. "At any point in time you call me with a bad report, I'm bringing her back here."

In Aiken County, the officer initially sets the fine when he writes the ticket, sheriff's spokesman Lt. Michael Frank said.

If a driver chooses to go to Aiken County Summary Court and contest a ticket, nine times out of 10, he will try to meet with the officer beforehand and appeal for a reduced fine, said Lt. Frank. As in Georgia, certain offenses require a driver to appear in court.

"And generally, at least here in Aiken, officers, deputies, drivers and troopers can be seen meeting in front of the courtroom, discussing their respective cases," Lt. Frank said. "And it's at that time that the negotiation takes places. If the driver has been well-behaved and has a good attitude, the officer, trooper or deputy has the discretion to reduce the points and fines, but a judge has the final say-so."

Reach Sylvia Cooper at (706) 823-3228.

Speeding fines and bonds

Thomson-McDuffie County:

26 to 30 mph over limit: $125

31 to 34 mph over limit: $250

35 mph over limit: $375

Harlem:

15 to 25 mph over limit: $92.40

26 mph or more over limit: $112.20

Burke County:

Speeding 85 to 94 mph: $230

Speeding 95 to 100 mph: $345

Speeding more than 100 mph: $575*

Waynesboro:

Speeding 16 to 20 mph over limit: $110

Speeding 21 to 25 mph over limit: $155

*Requires a court appearance

Sources: Courts and law enforcement agencies of each jurisdiction