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SJC says drivers must pay to appeal tickets

By Martin Finucane
Globe Staff / September 22, 2011

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Thinking about appealing that traffic ticket? You’re going to have to pay for it.

The state’s highest court has upheld a 2009 state law that requires people to pay a filing fee when they contest a traffic ticket before a clerk-magistrate or a judge.

The Supreme Judicial Court said in a ruling yesterday that “it is rational for the Legislature to impose filing fees, waivable where a litigant is indigent, to offset part of the additional cost of these judicial proceedings.’’

Anybody who wants to appeal a traffic ticket must pay a $25 fee to appeal in a clerk-magistrate hearing. If they want to appeal the clerk-magistrate’s decision to a judge, they must pay $50.

The fees have been in effect since July 1, 2009. Before that time, the only fee required was a $20 fee when a driver took an appeal all the way to a judge, the SJC said.

The court rejected arguments by Ralph C. Sullivan, who challenged tickets he received April 30, 2009, in Salem. Sullivan argued that the fees violated his constitutional right to equal protection under the law because people who contested traffic violations were treated differently from those contesting other civil infractions, such as tickets for smoking in public accommodations and for possessing less than an ounce of marijuana.

But the SJC said those who challenge traffic tickets have “significantly greater’’ procedural protections than those challenging the other violations, including the right to subpoena witnesses, the right to be heard by a clerk-magistrate or judge rather than an assistant clerk, and the right to a fresh hearing before a judge.

The SJC said such protections impose “greater demands on the resources of the District Court.’’

In an opinion by Justice Ralph D. Gants, the SJC pointed out that about 700,000 motorists per year are cited for moving violations.

The opinion also stated that “where approximately 200,000 seek clerk-magistrate hearings, it is rational for the Legislature to deter frivolous filings by requiring a $25 filing fee, and to deter frivolous appeals from a clerk-magistrate’s finding of responsibility by requiring payment of an additional $50 fee to schedule a hearing before a judge.’’

The SJC also rejected Sullivan’s argument that he should not have to pay the $25 fee because he was issued the citation and requested a hearing before the law took effect.

Sullivan argued that making him pay violated the constitutional ban on ex post facto laws, which make something illegal that was not illegal at the time it was committed.

“The law challenged in this case . . . merely assesses a filing fee for judicial review of an alleged motor vehicle infraction and is not criminal or punitive,’’ the SJC said. “It is plain that, in enacting these filing fees, the Legislature intended to reduce the strain on the court system and offset adjudicatory costs, rather than increase the punishment for motor vehicle infractions.’’

Martin Finucane can be reached at mfinucane@globe.com.