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Municipalities overcharging for seat belt fines

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ A Norman resident is prepared to fight municipalities that have been charging motorists more than maximum fine for seat belt violations, according to a published report.

According to a state statute, a fine for a seat belt violation cannot exceed $20. At least 18 municipalities, however, have been charging up to $60, The Oklahoman reported.

The Norman case stemmed from a $35 ticket Robert Broyles received from a University of Oklahoma police officer.

After two years, the state Court of Criminal Appeals in April issued an opinion that no municipality could exceed the statutory limit of $20.

``I agreed to be a guinea pig for a test case,'' Broyles said.

Broyles' attorneys, Fred Shaeffer and Todd Kernel, swiftly filed a class-action lawsuit in Cleveland County District Court on behalf of Norman residents ticketed for seat belt violations in the past five years.

They're seeking reimbursement from the cities to those who were charged $15 over the statutory amount.

The class-action lawsuit has been assigned to Seminole County District Judge George Butner, who has not set a court date.

Kernel said an initial hearing, when it is set, will determine the case's class-action status.

``After that, I expect the motions to be heard and ruled upon fairly quickly,'' Kernel said.

Norman City Attorney Jeff Raley said the city immediately lowered its fine to $20 based on the appeals court ruling in Broyles case but added, ``it is our opinion that we do not have to reimburse people for past charges.''

Shaeffer said the class-action case could have implications for all cities that have overcharged or are overcharging.

Oklahoma City officials reduced more than 2,800 open seat belt violations to $20 on May 11, court administrator Stacey Davis said.

Resident James Castro, 20, was fined $35 for not wearing a seat belt in April. But the city won't give refunds because the ruling wasn't retroactive, Davis said.

Castro paid his fine, but said Oklahoma City owes every offender some cash.

From Jan. 1, 1999, to April 30, Oklahoma City officers issued 16,573 seat belt violations. If a court ordered the city to refund $15 on every citation, it would owe almost $250,000, the Oklahoman reported.

``When they're just trying to squeeze out 15 extra dollars that's a little ridiculous,'' Castro said. ``It's only 15 bucks, but for a lot of people, that's a lot of money. Now they're the ones basically breaking the law.''

Earlier this month, Tulsa officials reduced fines from $25 to $20, but administrative officer Paul Covey said the city has no plans to refund any money.

Diane Pedicord, attorney for the Oklahoma Municipal League, said she suspects cities charging more than $20 will reduce fines once the word of the courts ruling spreads.

``The problem is getting the word out,'' Pedicord said. ``It was one of those confusing areas.''

Del City could decrease its fines if it is ordered to, but will continue to charge $40, court clerk Charlotte Banks said.
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