A Wabasha County district court has ruled that a program that allows drivers to avoid a traffic ticket by taking a safe driving class and paying a reduced fine is not allowed under Minnesota law.
As a result, the Wabasha County sheriff said he'll end the program immediately.
Wabasha County has been operating a so-called safe driving program since 2003 that allowed drivers cited for some traffic offenses to instead pay a flat $125 to take a class and maintain a clean record. Nearly three dozen Minnesota counties and cities operate similar programs.
Two Wabasha County commissioners were among a group of residents who filed a lawsuit in August arguing that the county's safe driving program was illegal. In response, the county argued that it was a legal "diversion program."
Minnesota Third Judicial District Court Judge James Fabian issued a permanent injunction stopping the program on Monday.
"Wabasha County has enacted and operated a diversion program that infringes upon the power of the state to uniformly manage traffic offenses in the State of Minnesota," Fabian wrote in the decision. "The Safe Driving Class is not legally authorized under Minnesota law."
The lawsuit also named the State of Minnesota and state officials, including the state auditor and attorney general, as defendants. But the judge dismissed that portion of the suit.
Erick Kaardal, an attorney for the plaintiffs, praised the judge's decision.
"The purported violators of traffic laws in Wabasha County were being stopped and offered an illegal alternative to a ticket," Kaardal said. "They were shaking down people rather than giving them tickets in order to fund their own programs."
Kaardal said the plaintiffs who filed the suit won't benefit monetarily from the decision, but that they were motivated by civic responsibility. "It's not anti-government, it's good to go to court and hold the government unaccountable to its own laws," he said.
Wabasha County Sheriff Rodney Bartsh said he was saddened by the court's decision to end the program.
"We're a little bit in shock that the citizens are going to lose this program — that's truly what it was, a citizen's program," Bartsh said. "The fact that a couple county commissioners tried to shut it down is still mindboggling."
About 75 people who are currently scheduled to attend the safe driving classes in Wabasha County will likely have to instead pay the full cost of the ticket and have it recorded on their driving record, the sheriff said.
"That's why we were putting on the classes, so that they weren't getting tracked and so that the people weren't seeing their insurance rates increase, and the fact that the tickets never got into court -- we didn't think the state needed any money out of it," Bartsh said.
Under the Wabasha County safe driving program, the local government kept all of the revenue. When traffic tickets are issued, the state takes a cut. Statewide, the safe driving programs brought local governments about $1.6 million between 2010 and 2012.
Since 2004, the Minnesota Office of the State Auditor has released reports stating that safe driving programs like the one in Wabasha County weren't in compliance with Minnesota law and recommended that the programs be stopped.
Although the judge is expected to set a hearing on other issues in the case, including a possible clawback of funds, Bartsh said he isn't worried about having to pay back the nearly $500,000 collected under the program since its formation.
"I think they'd be hard pressed to get all that back as they didn't take a stand the whole time. They allowed us to do it for up to 10 years, just stating opinions, which we disagreed with the whole time," Bartsh said. "We had a lot of county attorneys across the state siding with us."
Although the injunction applies directly only to Wabasha County, there could be broader implications for 35 similar programs operated in cities and counties across the state. Kaardal said he and the plaintiffs will continue to pursue the issue in court, but that they hope county attorneys and sheriffs will voluntarily drop the programs.
Goodhue County also operates a similar safe driving class program. Sheriff Scott McNurlin said his county attorney is reviewing the judge's decision.
"County Attorney [Stephen] Betcher did not give a definitive timeline for his review," McNurlin said. "In the interim, he advised us not to suspend or discontinue the program at this time."
The Office of the State Auditor released a comprehensive report on traffic diversion programs in November. State Auditor Rebecca Otto said she's pleased with the judge's decision, which is in line with her office's position on traffic diversion programs in audits of local governments over the years.
"If we're conducting the audit, they will continue to get findings if they continue to operate them as they have in the past," she said. "We'll be consistent on our end to let them know that they're not authorized under state law."