Aug. 23—The Anchorage Assembly on Tuesday approved a measure revising the city's scofflaw program. The changes, approved in a 7-4 vote, come after years of scrutiny by officials who said the program disproportionately punished vehicle drivers unable to pay fines while also not improving public safety as intended.
Under the program, police have had authority to impound vehicles driven by people who had accumulated more than $1,000 worth of specific driving or equipment citations.
Assembly member Felix Rivera initially proposed repealing the scofflaw program entirely. But after pushback from the Anchorage police chief and Mayor Dave Bronson's administration, members kept the program in place but made significant changes to it.
The unpaid fine amount that triggers police authority to seize and impound a vehicle has been raised to $2,500, and the types of traffic citations that can count toward that total have been narrowed under Tuesday night's measure. What will count toward scofflaw will now mirror the state's statute, focused primarily on moving violations. Citations for equipment or violations of registration, licensing and inspection requirements won't count toward the $2,500 threshold. However, citations for not having proof of insurance will still count.
Before Tuesday's vote, the scofflaw program was a "wide umbrella that counted everything," Rivera said. Now, "it's really more of the kinds of things that people would think of as dangerous or reckless driving behaviors," he said.
The Anchorage Police Department believes the ordinance "is an effective tool for keeping dangerous drivers off the street," spokeswoman Renee Oistad said in an email Wednesday. The department "thinks it was a good decision to keep the scofflaw ordinance," she said.
Bronson had put forward a similar measure revising the scofflaw program, including the increased delinquent fine threshold.
"I support changes that will revise the amount of fines. I want to also make sure that Anchorage remains a law and order city and that we do not eliminate or defund the administrative aspect of the scofflaw ordinance," Bronson said during opening remarks at Tuesday's meeting.
The legislation members passed on Tuesday took the changes further than Bronson's version.
One last-minute change to the measure, proposed by Chair Christopher Constant and approved by the members Tuesday night, means that fines that have been delinquent for five or more years will no longer count towards a person's total. That means people who weren't able to pay their fines years ago, but who have been good drivers and haven't been racking up fines since, won't suddenly lose their vehicle if they get pulled over, Rivera said.
Also, the fee has been reduced for vehicle owners who weren't driving the vehicle at the time it was seized by police — a frequent scenario, as any vehicle driven by someone on the scofflaw list can be impounded, regardless of whether they own the vehicle or not. Anywhere from 56% to 79% of the vehicles impounded under the ordinance from 2011 to 2019 belonged to someone other than the scofflaw, according to data compiled by the municipal attorney's office.
Now, those owners who weren't the driver will pay half the administrative fee — $205 rather than $410 — plus towing and storage fees. But the fee will be waived for the owners if it's the first time their vehicle has been impounded within the last five years under the scofflaw program, and if, during that time, they haven't entered into an agreement with the city to take reasonable measures to prevent someone on the list from driving their vehicle.
The ordinance will also be somewhat retroactive, requiring the administration to recalculate a person's delinquent fine total before seizing their vehicle, using the measure's more narrow definition of applicable citations.
The legislation as proposed by Rivera would have required the city to stand up a payment plan program for people on the scofflaw list, disallowing police to seize vehicles from those in good standing. But Assembly members struck that change from the measure after Acting Chief Fiscal Officer Alden Thern spoke against it.
He said that with thousands of people owing fines, and as many get additional citations, the process to set up payment plans and then continuously adjust them would be "extremely onerous."
Court-ordered PFD garnishments would further complicate it, he said.
"I don't believe that you really, truly realize the administrative burden of trying to administer and manage that," Thern said.
Rivera on Wednesday said he intends to return to the payment plan idea and figure out a solution that the city can agree on, because he believes that people who are trying to do the right thing by paying the fines, but can't pay it all at once, should have the ability to keep their vehicles. Many depend on their cars to get to work.
"You take away someone's car and all of a sudden you're taking away their ability to continue to pay these fines, to continue to do what's right," he said.