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Oh, Ma-a-a-att:

There is a $271 fine for driving in the carpool lane on my local freeway. I believe that figure is posted as the fine for varied other infractions of traffic law. Um -- $271? Where did they come up with that amount? Just a number picked at random? Or the result of political sausage-making, the details of which we might just be happier not knowing.

-- Spikey Mikey, the net

Ooooh, yeah, Spikey, the bureaucracy's got its mitts all over this one. Traffic fines have been a reliable revenue-raiser since the state economy began to tank in the early '90s. Fines are set by the state's Traffic Advisory Committee, appointees of the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court. That's a group of judges, cops, and attorneys who sit down at the end of California's legislative year -- right about now, s'matterafact -- and look at any new laws and calculate what's called a uniform bail schedule, making sure the new fines are consistent with existing fines. They circulate the proposal around to other judges and cops and attorneys, then send the finished product to the California Judicial Council, an arm of the state court system, for adoption.

So that's our little diagram of how a fine becomes a law, but why a $271 law instead of a tidy, even $250 law? Each fine is made up of a bail amount and a penalty. The bail amount is what it costs you for the privilege of walking around free until your court date comes up. The penalty is what should keep you from breaking the law again. The penalty is also what the state legislature added in 1991 to bring in some desperately needed cash. In their wisdom, they decided that for every $10 worth of bail, we'd have to pay $17 in penalties ($10 to go to the state, $7 to the county where you did the deed), with a buck for the courts.

Since the Traffic Advisory Committee sees to it that bail amounts are equal for similar transgressions, you'll end up with a lot of the same fine amounts. F'rinstance, your $271 car pool violation. That's $100 bail plus $170 penalty plus the buck for the court. Need I mention that fines in highway construction zones are doubled, and you can't weasel out of tickets now by going to traffic school? So the system is everything an irate citizen could hope for: a bureaucratic rat's nest, a financial hustle, and a steel trap from which no citizen can escape with his wallet intact. I can smell the outrage from here.

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