Cops and Traffic Tickets

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This week the New York Times published an extensive review into the governmental practice of using police traffic enforcement as a revenue source. In many instances, this was a “suspicion confirmed” for me after my three decades in policing. All this reminded me of a time when I was chief of police in Madison. I would work as a uniformed patrol officer for a month each summer in order the understand the work my officers were engaged.

One day, I pulled over a young woman with a “beater” auto and two young children in the back seat for running a red light. In addition, her car registration had expired. 

As I was about to issue her a citation, I stopped and thought. I calculated how much this citation would cost this obviously poor woman — hundreds of dollars in fines. The result would be that she would most likely be unable to pay this fine, causing her driver’s license to be suspended, and because she would still need transportation to get to work, she would be stopped again by police and then go down the “rabbit hole” of our justice system.

I also knew that many of the deadly force situations between police and people of color often began with some kind traffic violation — a vehicle defect like a burned out head or tail light. Too often, these encounters would result in the driver feeling he or she was singled out (driving while black) and/or the high cost of receiving an expensive traffic ticket.

On the other side of the argument I am about make is that we need to insure traffic safety. I am all for that. But are there ways other than having police issue monetary fines for poor driving or subpar vehicle maintenance?

I suggest that correcting driving and vehicle maintenance can be done by ways other than cash fines. (You might notice at the bottom of this post I am linking the reader to some investigative reports regarding the use of high levels of traffic enforcement to raise money for municipal expenses.)

Here are some ideas:

  1. For poor driving behavior, the offender could be ordered to a “traffic school” to correct the poor driving behavior in lieu of a cash fine.
  • Require offenders with poor vehicle maintenance (lights, tires, brakes, etc,) to fix the problem within a reasonable period of time and permit offenders who claim financial hardship to be eligible for a publicly funded repair voucher. (After all, is not the goal to have safe vehicles on the street?)
  • State laws should be enacted which regulate the amount of traffic fine revenue may be used to supplement a city’s budget.
  • If cash fines continue to be used they should be assessed as a percent of a person’s income (See this article). Today, more than 30 European and Latin American countries levy penalties using an income-graduated model. People who break the law pay a fine equivalent to a percentage of their income, rather than a flat fee. (Read more about this practice here.)
  • With community input, measures and strategies for traffic enforcement should be creatively explored and implemented.

As I thought about the traffic stop I described earlier, I decided to issue my own creation — a “warning ticket” which required her to get her vehicle registration up to date and to report to my office in two weeks.  Was the a good exercise of “officer discretion.” I think it was.

What I should have done is create a group of community members, prosecutors, judges and officers to develop a traffic enforcement system that did not rely so heavily on cash fines and still worked to ensure safety in my community. Sadly, I did not.

________________________________________

Now back to today, is the objective of traffic enforcement strategies to maintain safety or to raise revenue?

The following is from the Fines and Fees Justice Center:

At least 20 states evaluate police performance on the number of traffic stops per hour.

Cities and towns, often those with weakened tax bases or that are barred from easily raising revenue, use fines and fees to raise revenue. Over 730 municipalities rely on fines and fees for at least 10 percent of their revenue. 

For example, Valley Brook, a town of 870 people, collects about $1 million each year from traffic cases.  The use of armed officers as revenue agents has created incentives for aggressive enforcement and made traffic stops a common routine during which people have been beaten, tased, shot, or arrested. 

The New York Times identified over 400 unarmed people killed in the last five years who were not being pursued for violent crimes and examined practices in Ohio, Oklahoma, and Virginia which have all had controversy surrounding traffic stops.

You can read the full text here

Key Findings:

  • The federal government issues $600 million a year in highway safety grants that subsidize ticket writing.
  • Nearly 100 Virginia communities receive federal grants encouraging tickets; annual grants ranged from $900 to $1 million last year.
  • Newburgh Heights, Ohio’s  Black residents, make up 22 percent of the population but make up 76 percent of license and insurance violations and 63 percent of speeding cases.
  • In 2019, Henderson, La, a town of 2,000, collected $1.7 million in fines, 89 percent of their general revenues.

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Read more about the problems of using traffic arrests to either raise money or harass vulnerable populations:

From the New York Times (April 15, 2022): “Los Angeles is overhauling its traffic policing, aiming to stop pulling over cars — frequently with Black drivers — for trivial infractions like broken taillights or expired tags as a pretext to search for drugs or guns. ‘We want to fish with a hook, not a net,’ Police Chief Michel Moore said.”

From an earlier investigation: NYT Editorial Board (November 20, 2021): “Departments that trawl poor communities in particular for ticket revenue — and whose officers sometimes manufacture infractions — undermine trust in the law. Policing for profit also subjects motorists to unfair scrutiny and potentially dangerous encounters with officers during traffic stops. States and municipalities need to move away from this practice.”

4 Comments

  1. There is no “profit” in writing tickets David. In my agency a $75 dollar fine was gobbled up by the multitude of fees collected by the state, including police training. What was left was $11. Now consider the officers time, traffic enforcement training, equipment, supervision, paperwork processing, etc. etc. Then there are additional costs related to those who don’t show up for court. Officer court overtime, prosecutors time, bench warrants and officers time in pursuing the FTA warrants.

    So you might wonder why we make this a priority in our agencies, or at least we used to. Because reducing carnage on our high ways is worth it.

    Your viewpoint is clear, there are “social justice” issues in play here. But consider this, the police are not in the “social Justice” business, they are in the criminal justice business. The mission of the police is to control uncivilized behavior, it is not to fix deeply rooted problems that are, and have, contributed to the breakdown of the social order like we saw in Milwaukee last night and in Chicago, LA, and New York every day.

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    1. Pat, always interested in your view which reminds me of the work ahead. And how “old thinking” continues to plague the field. I don’t know about you, but I was always pressed to encourage my officers to write tickets to meet the revenue expected from it in my budget. There are better ways.

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    2. You cops play a large and important part in creating and maintaining the deeply rooted problems like slavery, racism, busting up unions and keeping unions out of the workforce except your own that have contributed to the breakdown of social order. You have never gone after corporations and wealthy people for violating the laws and let yourselves become a private police force for these two groups. This is your cock up and you know it..

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  2. I worked at police departments that used projected fine amounts as a part of the operating budgets in South Carolina. The police officers were expected to deliver that amount on an annual basis. This makes me sad now that I think about it. I am confident this continues today.

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