Should ‘court costs’ be more than double the price of a ticket? In Memphis, they are

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Imagine getting a traffic ticket, going to court, presenting your case and getting off. But in the end, you pay more than the value of the ticket, even though you’re not guilty.

Believe it or not, it happens every day in Memphis. It happened recently to Tiffany Whitehead.

Whitehead has always been a survivor her entire life.

“I’ve had seizures since the age of three,” she said.

She managed the seizures until the summer before her sophomore year of college.

At age 19, Whitehead saw her neurologist for her regular checkup. But it didn’t go as planned.

“He’s like, ‘I’m going to have to do brain surgery. I found a tumor and I’m sure that’s the cause of it. So that’s what we’re going to have to do,’” she explained.

Surgery got rid of her tumor, but not the seizures. So she learned instead how to manage them.

“If I’m stressed or overwhelmed, that’s what I learned triggered them,” she said.

But there was one day late last year she never could’ve predicted.

“This one comes out of the blue. I’m driving, headed down Macon [Road] here. Next thing I know when I wake up I’m in the back of an ambulance,” she said. “I found out once I got to the hospital that I had a seizure, my car jumped a curb and I hit a – it wasn’t a utility pole but something small.”

At the hospital, Whitehead also got some more surprise news. She’s pregnant. That’s probably what caused the seizure, doctors said.

Then a deputy came to her room.

“He turns on his body camera. He’s like, ‘I have to give you this citation. At the bottom there’s a court date,’” she said.

Her doctor offered to write a letter explaining what happened.

“It’ll tell about your condition, the tumor and you’re aware you can’t drive for six months,” she said.

So Whitehead brought the letter to municipal court, hoping to get her ticket written off.

She succeeded, with one condition.

“She doesn’t even ask to see the letter or any of the paperwork. The only thing she tells me is she can drop the ticket so it’s not on the driving record, but you’ll still have to pay the court costs,” she said.

The judge ruled Whitehead not guilty, dropped the ticket, but still asked her to pay $135 in court costs, all for a $57 dollar ticket.

“I didn’t understand that. To me, that doesn’t make sense. Because now the court cost is more than double the amount of the ticket,” she said.

And Whitehead’s not alone.

WREG got a hold of records showing how much the city charged over just the second half of 2018.

In that time nearly 24,000 people owed court costs, totaling more than $2.6 million.

“I only make $11.70 an hour,” Whitehead said. “I don’t think I’m the only one that feels this way. Many people are feeling like this can be a bit overwhelming.”

And to be clear, Whitehead knows she still could save money in the long run.

“There’s the risk of points on my license and my insurance going up due to that ticket,” she said.

But she still thinks it’s excessive.

WREG asked city officials why they do this.

They rejected our request for an interview, but answered questions over email.

They said city code dictates the price. In 2011, the standard court cost increased, more than doubling from $61 to $135.

That money goes into the city’s general fund, paying for things like staffing for fire and police.  Fines and forfeitures, including court costs, make up about 2 percent of the city’s overall budget.

“I get you have to pay your workers. That’s only fair,” Whitehead said. “But at same time if you’re going to give someone a ticket, or assume they can pay court costs and they only have 30 days to pay it, after that 30 days then what? If I don’t have it paid is my driver’s license going to be suspended?”

City officials said they do offer payment plans but you have to go and request it from the clerk offices at 201 Poplar in rooms 1-11A and LL-80.

No one ever told Whitehead about that option. After the ordeal of her accident and pregnancy, she wished she would’ve had that opportunity for at least some relief.

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