Jari Sirkia, a traffic police officer, monitoring speeds via radar near Helsinki, Finland, where penalties are calculated by income. Credit Andrew Testa for The New York Times
HELSINKI, Finland — Getting a speeding ticket is not a feel-good moment for anyone. But consider Reima Kuisla, a Finnish businessman.
He was recently fined 54,024 euros (about $58,000) for traveling a modest, if illegal, 64 miles per hour in a 50 m.p.h. zone. And no, the 54,024 euros did not turn out to be a typo, or a mistake of any kind.
Mr. Kuisla is a millionaire, and in Finland the fines for more serious speeding infractions are calculated according to income. The thinking here is that if it stings for the little guy, it should sting for the big guy, too.
The ticket had its desired effect. Mr. Kuisla, 61, took to Facebook last month with 12 furious posts in which he included a picture of his speeding ticket and a picture of what 54,024 euros could buy if it were not going to the state coffers — a new Mercedes. He said he was seriously considering leaving Finland altogether, a position to which he held firm when reached by phone at a bar where he was watching horse races.
“The way things are done here makes no sense,” Mr. Kuisla sputtered, saying he would not be giving interviews. Before hanging up, he added: “For what and for whom does this society exist? It is hard to say.”
The Nordic countries have long had a strong egalitarian streak, embracing progressive taxation and high levels of social spending. Perhaps less well known is that they also practice progressive punishment, when it comes to certain fines. A rich person, many citizens here believe, should pay more for the same offense if justice is to be served. The question is: How much more?
On his Facebook page, quite a few of Mr. Kuisla’s friends offered their sympathy. But that did not seem to be the drift of public opinion. Elsewhere, it was easier to find Finns who were shrugging over his predicament.
At the University of Helsinki, Jussi Lahti, 35, a graduate student in geography, said that he could understand why Mr. Kuisla was upset, but that he considered the principle of an equal percentage fair. And, he added, Mr. Kuisla “had a choice when he decided to speed.”
The size of Mr. Kuisla’s ticket nonetheless drew considerable attention here as television shows and newspapers debated the merits of Finland’s system, which uses a complex formula based on income to calculate an individual’s fines. Some wondered whether the government should stop imposing such fines for infractions at relatively low speeds. Some suggested that a fine so big was really a form of taxation.
But the idea that the rich should pay heavier fines did not seem to be much in question. “It is an old system,” said Pasi Kemppainen, chief superintendent at the National Police Board. “It may lead to high fines, but only for people who can afford it.”
In fact, the Finnish “day fine” system, also in use in some other Scandinavian countries, dates to the 1920s, when fines based on income were instituted for all manner of lesser crimes, such as petty theft and assault, and helped greatly reduce the prison population.
The fines are calculated based on half an offender’s daily net income, with some consideration for the number of children under his or her roof and a deduction deemed to be enough to cover basic living expenses, currently 255 euros per month.
Then, that figure is multiplied by the number of days of income the offender should lose, according to the severity of the offense.
Mr. Kuisla, a betting man who parlayed his winnings into a real estate empire, was clocked speeding near the Seinajoki airport. Given the speed he was going, Mr. Kuisla was assessed eight days. His fine was then calculated from his 2013 income, 6,559,742 euros, or more than $7 million at current exchange rates.
Someone committing a similar offense and earning about 50,000 euros a year, or $54,000, none of it capital gains, and with no young children, would get a fine of about 345 euros, or about $370. Someone earning 300,000 euros ($322,000), would have to pay about 1,480 euros ($1,590).
When the “day fine system” was devised for petty crimes, Finland did not even have any speed limits on its roads. Those did not arrive until the 1970s.
Back then, the police had to rely on the honor system, that is, asking drivers to declare their incomes, before calculating the fine. It seems not everyone was forthcoming. In today’s digital age, however, a few seconds is all it takes for the police, using mobile devices, to get information directly from the Finnish tax office.
Police officials say that there are really very few tickets issued of this magnitude, though they do not keep track.
Until he was issued the speeding ticket, Mr. Kuisla used his Facebook page largely to post pictures of his winning horses or the lobbies and bars of the hotels he owns.
But the ticket seemed to focus his attention on Finnish policies that he said discouraged entrepreneurs, apparently a reference to the country’s progressive tax system and its high inheritance taxes. High earners can face an income tax rate of more than 50 percent.
“Finland is now an impossible country to live in for people with a large income and wealth!” he posted on March 2.
But online comments in newspapers suggested a strong showing for the other side.
“This says a lot about the times when the stinkingly rich can’t even take their fines for crimes, but are immediately moving out of the country. Farewell, we won’t miss you,” said one post in The Helsingin Sanomat, a daily newspaper and website.
But the ticket has tapped into a broader debate about the coherence of the Finnish justice system. Mr. Kuisla’s speeding infraction is actually classified as a crime here, which could seem severe when other parts of the system are relatively lenient. For instance, people convicted of murder could serve as little as nine years and could be released in four and a half years, said Kimmo Kiiski, a senior transport adviser at the Ministry of Transport and Communications.
He said that a commission considering such issues was expected to finish a report next year, and that it would probably move speeding tickets out of the criminal justice system altogether and stop levying such large fines for lower-end speeding tickets.
Mr. Kuisla, Mr. Kiiski pointed out, would have gotten a fine of about 100 euros if he had been traveling three kilometers per hour slower. “That kind of difference is too big,” Mr. Kiiski said. “There has to be some difference depending on income or there would be no justice. But not that kind of difference.”
Mr. Kuisla’s $58,000 ticket is not even the most severe speeding ticket issued in recent years. According to another daily newspaper, Ilkka, Mr. Kuisla himself got an even bigger fine in 2013 when he was going about 76 m.p.h. in a 50 m.p.h. zone. That ticket was for 63,448 euros, about $83,769 at the time.
Bigger yet was the ticket issued to a 44-year-old Nokia executive in 2002, when he was caught blowing through Helsinki on his Harley motorcycle and was hit with a $103,600 fine, based on a $12.5 million yearly income.
Both tickets were appealed and in the end reduced. Usually, appeals are based on financial issues, such as a one-time sale of stock that year. But judges have great leeway, experts said. Mr. Kuisla ended up paying 5,346 euros for the 2013 ticket.