Could a Federal Law to Stop Police Revenue-Seeking Actually Work?

Congressman wants to make shaking down the citizens a federal crime.


A law against enforcing laws? Do go on …
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver

In the wake of the Department of Justice's report that the police and city leaders of Ferguson, Missouri, see the law as a way to extract money from the citizenry, Missouri Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Kansas City) is looking to find a federal solution.

Today he has announced he is going to be introduce the Fair Justice Act to outlaw the practice of enforcing laws for the purpose of raising revenue. From his own announcement:

Announcing introduction of the Fair Justice Act, Congressman Cleaver stated, "The time has come to end the practice of using law enforcement as a cash register, a practice that has impacted too many Americans and has disproportionately affected minority and low-income communities. No American should have to face arbitrary police enforcement, the sole purpose of which is to raise revenue for a town, city, or state."

Congressman Cleaver's Fair Justice Act would make it a civil rights violation, punishable by up to five years in prison, to enforce criminal or traffic laws solely to raise revenue. Thus, no official or agency of a state or a county, city, town or other political subdivision may adopt a policy or engage in any activity that authorizes, promotes, or executes the enforcement of criminal, civil, or traffic laws for the purpose of raising revenue.

This legislation will help prevent the kind of reprehensible activities that occurred in Ferguson, Missouri, where the Department of Justice found that Ferguson's law enforcement practices were shaped by the city's overwhelming focus on raising revenue rather than protecting the public.  

 "It is a common practice of certain law enforcement officials of state and local municipalities to target communities solely for profit," said Congressman Cleaver. "Americans of all stripes have faced this, but there can be no doubt that minorities and low-income residents have faced the brunt of this. Make no mistake, the Fair Justice Act is needed now more than ever, in order to finally put an end to criminal and traffic law enforcement activities motivated solely by raising revenue," said Congressman Cleaver.

But how exactly does one prove that the enforcement of the law is solely motivated to raise revenue? From a libertarian perspective, this proposal implicates the entirety of a drug war (technically, not a bad thing, one might argue). The proposed text of Cleaver's bill is not yet ready, but his office is hoping for it to be available by the end of the week. Would a municipality have to prove to the Department of Justice that each law has a valid purpose?

And this is a proposed criminal law, not a civil law. I am having a hard time visualizing a prosecutor managing to successfully hold any particular individual within municipal government criminally liable for the circumstances by which any particular law is enforced, except in some particularly egregious "smoking gun" cases. And even then, what happens when the officer or clerk or whomever just points to the city's crime rate as justification?

I'm trying not to be an immediate downer about the bill, but it strikes me being part of a mistaken belief that we can secure more freedom and liberty with even more regulation and rules. I can see this bill, if poorly worded, actually adding to municipal costs as cities find themselves having to produce more and more documentation to prove to the DOJ that they're not revenue-mongering, rather than actually reducing the scope of municipal law enforcement, as Cleaver hopes. We will have to see what the legislation actually says.

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  1. High school age Mainer used to argue with his dad that policing for profit was a bad idea.
    Funny how a punk 17 year old could see the problem when “teh drugz!” blinded grownups to the inherent mal-incentives.

  2. Could a Federal Law to Stop Police Revenue-Seeking Actually Work?

    We’ll never know.

    1. The Fourth Amendment hasn’t done any good. A new law would be a 1,000 page Swiss cheese of loopholes and special favors. Like most laws these days it would make things worse.

  3. Police departments using the law as a means to extract money is ironclad evidence that we need to give police departments more money!


  4. But but, if this worked the local speed trap town between me and civilization would have no revenue at all!

  5. Congressman Cleaver’s Fair Justice Act would make it a civil rights violation, punishable by up to five years in prison, to enforce criminal or traffic laws solely to raise revenue.

    That right there makes this an exercise in deception and window-dressing.

    I can be enforcing laws primarily to raise revenue and get a pass under this language.

    You have to take the revenue away from the people enforcing the laws. IOW, all revenue raised as fines or penalties goes into some fund that the municipality or county or whoever can’t touch, directly or indirectly.

  6. Here in Maine, all ticket revenue goes to the state’s general fund, and the (local) cops don’t hand out tickets all willy-nilly (state troopers regularly set up operations to catch speeders on the turnpike). Correlation or causation?

    1. I enjoy this every time you post it. So simple. How does a town argue againt it without saying, in effect, we want to raise money by issuing tickets.

  7. A Supreme Court decision against asset forfeiture laws (at least in cases not directly involving tax liens against the property in question, which was what “in rem” proceedings were originally intended for) would do a lot of good. I don’t know how, as a practical matter, you can legislate the difference between “real” laws and revenue-generating fines.

    As suggested above, preventing fine revenue from directly benefiting law enforcement would be a positive move, but the smaller the jurisdiction, the less of a difference I’d expect it to make, and even a large state could pressure law enforcement to “do their part” to raise revenue.

    1. Use bankruptcy law to differentiate.

  8. my friend’s sister-in-law makes $63 /hour on the internet . She has been fired from work for 6 months but last month her payment was $16955 just working on the internet for a few hours. go to the website…….

    ????? http://www.netjob70.com

  9. So, um…no more taxes?

  10. this will never work because you would never be able to prove the reason for the enforcement was revenue generation.

    You could however pass a law that bans any such laws from being passed and if a defendant can show to a preponderance of the evidence standard that revenue generation is the purpose of the law that the law is invalidated, the defendant acquitted and awarded punitive damages equal to 100x the fine faced.

    You could also require that the funds raised by criminal fines at all levels of government be diverted to some other place that does not directly or indirectly impact the budget of the agency passing or enforcing the law/regulation .

    1. I’ve always been in favor of requiring that all fine money go into a giant pool that is distributed equally to every taxpayer in the fine district at the end of the year. The amount granted to each taxpayer would be so miniscule it wouldn’t even register, thus it would eliminate people pushing for fines for their own benefit.

  11. Or you could just outlaw fines.

  12. the simplest way would be for ALL fines, penalties, and civil asset forfeitures of any kind to go into an account that is divided among the citizens on an annual basis. but then the government would be very bored by imposing & collecting fines.

  13. Don’t think that one’s going to fly very far…..it only has a stunted Left-wing.

  14. But how exactly does one prove that the enforcement of the law is solely motivated to raise revenue?

    The simplest way? Get rid of the fines altogether.

    *Every* sentence is custodial. Then we’ll see how much people like a particular ordnance when you’re locking people up over it. And governments will have less incentive to arrest people/make more laws as enforcing them is solely a money-drainer, not money-maker – especially if you outlaw ‘fees’ associated with fines (victim’s surcharge fee, court fee, etc).

    We’ll get to see *exactly* how important that 15 mph speed limit is, do we *really* consider those handicapped spaces essential, is it really a police and government function to control litter around our homes, etc.

    1. I think you are underestimating the willingness there is to put people in prison.

      Most laws seem to be at the behest of middle aged white women. Those are the sort that don’t speed or steal handicap spaces, so they’d be perfectly happy locking speeders and illegal parkers up in jail

      And then you have the prison union lobbyists, who would also love such a thing.

  15. A law should be passed requiring all fees collected (including civil forfeiture monies) to go to the offices of public defenders/legal aid people.

    Who would possibly be opposed to that???

    1. Let’s take the only people who are supposed to help victims of the system and corrupt them by giving them an incentive not to do their jobs! What a great idea (not)!!!

  16. Missouri actually had a law where only 30% of a cities revenue can come from fines and such. There’s talk of lowering that to10%.

  17. The biggest problem with this bill is that, because it is a criminal law, prosecutors (police) will continue to have a monopoly on enforcing it. We need the right to sue and collect from police ourselves!

  18. There’s a song from some years back about that-
    “Radar Gun” by the Bottle Rockets.
    Here’s one verse:

    You know our Sheriff William Buckburger
    Says our mayor’s got a master plan
    A new post gun meets the cost of livin’
    And one of them stoplights down on Grand

    Radar Gun, Radar Gun
    I’m makin’ money and I’m havin’ fun with my
    Radar Gun, Radar Gun
    With my brand new Radar Gun

    Schedule 19 on a special election
    Got our money problems right in hand
    Droppin’ them limits like a hot potato
    50 down to 30 oh man, oh man

    Radar Gun, Radar Gun
    I’m makin’ money and I’m havin’ fun with my
    Radar Gun, Radar Gun
    With my brand new Radar Gun
    Brand new shiny Simmons Radar Gun

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