The number of people who faced Judge Hammond Law for driving without a license peaked in the first quarter of 2007, when an average of more than 100 a month came into Gainesville Municipal Court to answer to the charge.
Since then, the number of unlicensed drivers cited on city streets has decreased dramatically, and a local immigration enforcement program appears to have played a big role in the drop, officials say.
In 2007, there were 1,312 no license violations handled in Gainesville Municipal Court. The next year, there were 735. Last year there were 404.
In April 2008, the Hall County Sheriff’s Office instituted the 287(g) program, which allows designated officers to begin deportation proceedings for any person in the country illegally who is arrested for some other offense and brought to the Hall County jail. Driving without a license is one such offense.
“When you have a significant number of people in Hall County who don’t have driver’s licenses, a lot of them don’t have driver’s licenses because they’re here illegally,” Law said. “So I think people are being more careful about that. I don’t think there’s any doubt that (287(g)) plays a part in that.”
Municipal court prosecutor Lee Parks agrees.
“I noticed we started to see a decrease in some of the areas when 287(g) took effect,” Parks said. He acknowledged the percentage of Latino defendants overall appears to have decreased in the court.
“If the numbers being down is because more people are obeying the traffic laws, that’s definitely a good thing,” Parks said.
The fine for driving without a license if $500.
Other offenses, including DUIs, are down in municipal court as well, though court officials don’t believe immigration enforcement has a role in that decrease. There were 399 DUI violations heard in municipal court in 2007, versus 293 last year.
While there have been decreases in violations and the monthly fees Gainesville pays the Hall County jail to house city detainees, municipal court revenues also are down.
Court collections went from $1.4 million in 2007 to $1.3 million in 2008 to $1.08 million last year.
Some of that decrease can be attributed to fewer traffic violations, though Law also notes that those arrested with immigration holds are less likely to pay a fine.
“They’re not going to be motivated to come up with the money if they’re going to be deported,” he said.
Still, the percentage of people in Law’s court with immigration holds has become “lower and lower,” he said.
Gainesville City Councilman George Wangemann said the reduction in violations and revenues in municipal court “is a mixed bag for us.”
“It hurts our revenues overall, but it’s also a credit to our police department,” Wangemann said. “Violations are down, and we’ve got to be happy about that.”
Law said he and the city council members agree that “the principal reason for traffic court is not for revenue collection.”
“If there are fewer violations and people are driving safer, that’s a good thing.”s