Pure Poison IconThere are several posts’ worth of hideously misleading and dishonest “stories” in today’s Herald Sun (if you want a preview, we’ll cover a disingenuous attack pretending that The Age exposing the ALP for holding private details on ordinary citizens in its database is a “hacking” scandal, a dishonest double-page spread claiming the Greens want to wipe out car manufacturing jobs and a nasty smear against a retired lawyer who was charged – not found guilty, mind you – with “drug trafficking” at University IN 1993 – I doubt we’ll have time to even mention the union-bashing “PURE RAGE” front page).

But let’s start with the misleading and destructive line they’re publishing about how “easy” it is to avoid paying tollway fines: “Magistrates wipe tollway fines because motorists cannot pay.”

A Sunday Herald Sun investigation has revealed about 15 people a week appear at Frankston Magistrates’ Court alone to fight fines for EastLink and CityLink.

A prosecutor at the court, who asked not to be named, said motorists facing fines of between $7000 and $70,000 for not paying their tolls were regularly let off.

I’m not surprised that prosecutor didn’t want to be named, because they’d have their words quoted back at them by defence lawyers who know perfectly well that that’s quite the opposite of what prosecutors tell the court every day.

And of course they know, as Herald Sun readers might well not know, that the figures quoted there are not the actual toll amounts. Under the Kennett government’s tollway legislation, a toll charge of a few dollars can very quickly turn into hundreds of dollars by the time it comes to court. $7,000 worth of fines might actually be from a few hundred dollars’ worth of tollway usage.

It’s also the case that people get lumped with the fines of former partners, who conceal the envelopes until it’s far too late for the person whose car was used to actually dispute them. The legislation makes it very difficult or impossible to challenge these fines once a certain time has passed.

And, of course, it is not an easy matter getting a court to waive fines at all. Firstly, if you actually do have money or assets, the court will order your employer to pay the inflated fines, and they can and do order your property sold.

According to prosecutors, people do not have to show special circumstances to avoid paying their fines or being sent to jail.

“People are coming along saying things like ‘I have two children to support’ and they are avoiding jail,” the prosecutor said.

Now if you’ve got nothing, and no income, and thus no way whatsoever of paying the money, it is true that under the Infringements Act 2006 a Magistrate has the power to discharge outstanding fines:

If the Court is satisfied that, having regard to the infringement offender’s situation, imprisonment would be excessive, disproportionate and unduly harsh

But it’s not in any way simply a matter of showing up to court and merely “claiming [you] cannot afford to pay”. The test above is a high one – not simply “I have two children to support”. The court is much more likely to make a defendant go and do community work, and pay an amount out of their already below-subsistence-level Centrelink payment.

And in cases where there is genuinely no prospect of recovering that money, what would David Hurley and the unnamed prosecutor rather we as a community do? We don’t have debtors’ prisons any more, so we shove these poor people into the general population with actual criminals? We spend tens of thousands of dollars locking parents with dependent children up in prison for months or years, and traumatise those children by finding them new foster parents in the meantime?

A word of warning to Herald Sun readers: if you think this story gives you carte-blanche to ignore tollway fines and just rely on having them wiped by some overly-kindly magistrate, and you act on that assumption, I suspect very strongly you might come to regret it.

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