Finnish man gets six-figure speeding ticket
By MATTI HUUHTANEN-- The Associated Press
HELSINKI, Finland (AP) -- Looking at Anssi Vanjoki's speeding ticket, many Finns are wondering whether their egalitarian spirit has taken them over the edge.
True, Vanjoki was doing 46.5 mph in a 30-mph zone. But $103,000?
The reason the penalty was so harsh is that traffic fines in Finland are based not just on the severity of the offense, but on the offender's income. Vanjoki is a senior executive of Nokia, the world's largest cell phone maker, and his fine was assessed on a 1999 income of $5.2 million.
A court later slashed it to $5,245, but not before Finns flew into a rage.
"There is something rotten in our fining system and it needs changing," says Leena Harkimo, one of 70 lawmakers in the 200-member Parliament who want the law amended. "People are equal before the law whatever their color, age, or sex, and so they should be when it comes to wealth."
The Iltalehti tabloid moaned that Finland had "reaped questionable fame abroad with the world's highest speeding fine."
European countries tend to have high-tax systems with lavish welfare services, and Finland with its 5 million people is no exception. Fines linked to income for various offenses are not a purely Finnish thing either.
Neighboring Sweden and Denmark do it, and so does Germany. But they set a ceiling -- $98 in Sweden, for example -- whereas Finland knows no limits. And Finland is thought to be the only country that applies the system to traffic offenses.
The system dates to the 1930s, but as the country has grown richer on its 1990s high-tech boom, it has moved up to Porsches and Harley-Davidsons, and traffic fines have become an issue.
Two years ago, Jaakko and Antti Rytsola -- young dot-com millionaire brothers -- each imported a $295,000 Lamborghini and couldn't resist stepping on the gas.
Jaakko got a $74,600 ticket in November 2000. A year later Antti was hit for $15,400.
Teemu Selanne, a top scorer in the National Hockey League, was fined $40,200 for reckless driving in June 2000.
Vanjoki broke all records when he was fined 690,000 markkaa, or $103,000, for speeding on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle through a Helsinki suburb last October.
But the 45-year-old executive vice president at Nokia's mobile phones division fought back. He maintained that police assessed him on the wrong year, and should instead have gone by his 2000 income, which was only $609,000.
In February, the Helsinki District Court agreed and cut the fine to 35,040 markkaa, or $5,245.
Even police acknowledge that Vanjoki's original fine was unreasonable.
"He was not endangering other people or traffic in the area, so his offense was fairly small," police superintendent Olli Ylikoski says. "But the size of the fine was out of all proportion to the infringement."
Jaakko Rytsola, one of the two millionaire brothers, got nabbed again in 2000, for driving dangerously, and was fined $44,800. But by last year he had sold the shares in his company, and his income had fallen so low that a court cut the penalty to $119.
Justice Minister Johannes Koskinen says the system should be preserved but altered.
"Although the flaws affect only a few, we should consider whether measures can be taken to improve the law without destroying the system which, in itself, is just," Koskinen said.
Police say the average traffic fine equals about $150. Last year, the government raked in the equivalent of $45 million from fines based on income, but it's not known how much came from speeding tickets.
Lawmaker Annika Lapintie thinks the system works.
"The law is a deterrent. It would be totally unjust if the poor and wealthy pay the same because the wealthy wouldn't feel it," Lapintie said.
Lawmaker Harkimo agrees, but calls the system "irrational" and wants a ceiling on speeding fines.
Vanjoki has declined to comment on his troubles, but is keeping his sense of humor.
At a trade fair in Germany last month, he showed off Nokia's latest mobile phone models, with new options for ringing tones. Vanjoki's emits the roar of a motorbike followed by police sirens.