I had a very interesting conversation with another attorney this morning in JP court while I was waiting to handle a traffic citation for a commercial truck driver. As of September 1 of last year, the fines for overweight tickets skyrocketed.
Thanks to State Rep. Allen Fletcher (R-Cypress), a new provision was added to the Texas Transportation Code. That provision, section 621.510 sets the fine for driving overweight to $1 per pound, meaning that a ticket for exceeding the weight limit by 10,000 pounds will cost the driver $10,000.
But, and this was the crux of our discussion this morning, is that legal?
First a little background. In Texas there are three levels of misdemeanor offenses - Class A, Class B and Class C. Class A misdemeanors, such as assault, have a maximum punishment of a year in the county jail and a fine of up to $4,000. A Class B misdemeanor, such as driving while intoxicated, has a maximum punishment of six months in the county jail and a fine of up to $2,000. A Class C misdemeanor has a maximum punishment of a $500 fine.
There are also five grades of felony offenses with fines maxing out at $10,000.
In Texas traffic offenses are classified as Class C misdemeanors. They are, therefore, criminal offenses for which the defendant is entitled to a jury trial. Overweight violations by commercial truck drivers are considered Class C misdemeanors.
And this brings us back to the question of whether it's legal to assess a $10,000 fine for a misdemeanor offense. While the Transportation Code spells out a laundry list of traffic offenses, the Penal Code spells out the maximum range of punishment.
There are certain criminal offenses listed in other legal codes and some of them have punishment provisions that are quite unique. But the punishment spelled out in those other codes must fall within the range of punishment for that particular class of offense in the Penal Code.
The recent changes to Section 621 of the Transportation Code don't. I can certainly understand why Rep. Fletcher decided to get tough on folks driving overweight trucks on our roads. Overweight trucks tear up the highways and cost us more money for road repairs. But Rep. Fletcher's bill is in direct violation of Section 12.23 of the Texas Penal Code.
The penalty assessed by Section 621.510 is also disproportionate given the seriousness of the offense. Assessing a fine for a traffic violation equal to the maximum fine that may be charge a person convicted of a felony is excessive and flies in the face of the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
The question, of course, is whether or not this matter will ever make it before an appeals court for a determination of whether the $1 a pound fine is legal. Given the steep fine and the clear illegality of that fine, it can only be a matter of time before the issue goes up on appeal.