photo by Robert Couse-Baker
It was after midnight one evening not long ago. I was driving south in the center lane on Interstate 95 north of Palm Beach Gardens, on my way home to Fort Lauderdale, when a car pulled alongside me to my right.
I scarcely noticed it at first. The speed limit on that stretch of highway is 70 mph. Like most Floridians, I drive faster, especially on a nearly empty, ruler-straight stretch of road. I had the cruise control set at 79, some music playing on the satellite radio and my hands on the wheel. The other vehicle came from behind me, pulled alongside and then stayed there, rather than proceeding to pass on my right. It might have been a full minute or two before I glanced over at the other driver.
It was a Florida highway patrolman. He was looking over at me, obviously aware that I was driving over the speed limit, clearly sizing me up. Gray-haired, 50-something white guy, driving an oldish minivan 9 or 10 miles an hour over the limit, not weaving or otherwise behaving erratically.
Eventually he decided I was not worth bothering with. The patrolman sped up and got off at the next exit. I proceeded home unmolested.
Would the outcome have been the same if I had been a younger man or a member of a minority group? Or if I had been driving a 12-cylinder German sedan with a price tag that runs well into six figures? Or if my car had been 20 years old instead of 10? I’d like to think so, but I have my doubts.
Highway law enforcement is a random and subjective exercise. The same behavior in the same place may draw a citation from one officer, a warning from a second, no response at all from a third. It may depend on the day, or the driver’s appearance, or the officer’s mood, or whether the officer has satisfied whatever unofficial quota has been imposed for “productivity,” meaning the issuance of revenue-generating traffic tickets. Sometimes officers are discriminatory. Often they are arbitrary. On some occasions, they are just wrong, whether deliberate or not.
In nearly all cases the consequences to the motorist depend on whether that motorist has the wherewithal to do anything other than just pay the citation. Luckily – at least in South Florida – there’s an app for that.
Tech startup TIKD aims to tap the large segment of the population (up to 95 percent according to the company’s founders) who just pay their tickets because the time and expense of fighting them are too much to handle. As Christopher Riley and Tim Berthold explained to the Miami Herald, TIKD’s customer experience is designed to last only a minute or two. A user uploads a photo of their ticket, and the company’s algorithm analyzes it based on the chances of dismissal (as well as to filter out cases the company does not accept, such as DUIs or accidents). If the ticket is accepted, the customer is offered a flat fee, usually 15 to 30 percent less than the original ticket. If customers accept, they are done.
It is hard to argue with TIKD’s claim of convenience, especially compared to the potential of multiple trips to court. The company hires the lawyer and assumes the risk; if the decision goes against the customer, TIKD both pays the fine and refunds the customer’s money. The company’s biggest marketing roadblock so far is reportedly potential customers who feel the service is too good to be true.
TIKD started in Florida’s Miami-Dade County, and recently expanded into Broward County, with plans to go national later this year. A handful of competitors, including Off the Record, use technology to connect drivers with lawyers to fight traffic tickets, but TIKD’s model is slightly different in that customers only pay once and get their money back if the dispute doesn’t go their way.
The startup can make this guarantee largely because most tickets that are challenged get dismissed. This reality explains the entire industry of ticket lawyers that predates and underpins companies like TIKD and Off the Record. But because fighting a ticket traditionally requires one or more trips to court, and legal fees for those who do not represent themselves, most people don’t bother.
Given the arbitrary nature of many traffic stops, maybe more people should push back. Besides the fine itself, racking up points on a driver’s license can increase insurance premiums and, eventually, create the risk of losing the license altogether. If you happen to live in a place with overzealous patrolmen or if you fit a “more likely to be stopped” profile – or both – traffic stops can quickly escalate from an annoyance to a life-disrupting problem.
Of course, as TIKD’s Riley observed, police departments that earn revenue from traffic tickets will not be pleased with services that make it easier for motorists to contest them. But as I have written before, using traffic stops to fund police departments is a deeply flawed arrangement that should be eliminated altogether. In the meantime, it can’t hurt use the market to enable drivers to more easily push back against overzealous and questionable citations.