Law enforcement

Relying on Petty Fines To Fund City Government Can Have Serious Consequences

"Taxation by citation" harms the harmless and destroys trust in civic institutions.


Burdening the poor with vexatious fines—which potentially lead, if people are unable to pay their fines, to imprisonment—is bad for society. A new study from the Institute for Justice, "The Price of Taxation by Citation," demonstrates the serious consequences not just for unfortunate citizens who have harmed no one, but for civic peace in general.

The study focuses on three Georgia cities that derive 14 to 25 percent of their revenue from such fines and fees: Morrow, Riverdale, and Clarkston. (The average for the state is more like 3 percent.) "The cities have their own courts to process citations, and the evidence shows these courts, which are structurally dependent on the cities, operate as well-oiled machines," the study reports. "They churn through more cases than courts in similarly sized cities, and cases almost always end in a guilty finding, resulting in fines and fees revenue for the cities."

The cities have small population bases on which to prey, ranging from 7,500 to 16,500. They are fined, among other things, for "traffic tickets…for non-speeding violations, such as expired tags, lane violations, illegal U-turns, parking violations and window tinting, among numerous others," as well as "trivial infractions…dominated almost entirely by offenses like being in a park after closing, violating leash laws and not walking on sidewalks."

Overall, the study found, most of these revenue-generating tickets are "for traffic and other ordinance violations that presented little threat to public health and safety. Traffic violations posed only moderate risk on average, while property code violations were primarily about aesthetics. This suggests the cities are using their code enforcement powers for ends other than public protection."

The phenomenon, which the authors call "taxation by citation," "(1) creates conflicts of interest, (2) distorts law enforcement priorities and (3) violates the rights of poor people." When, as often happens, these citations fees fund the very municipal courts that levy them, that gives judges a pretty direct "personal interest in cases they decide, and municipalities should not have a financial interest in obtaining convictions." Federal courts have found such practices constitutionally problematic.

In addition, "prosecutors' duty to exercise their discretion neutrally can also be compromised if their office has a financial stake in convicting people."

The practice also encourages law enforcement to spend time not worrying about actual public safety but searching for ways to ding people for cash. Such practices end up entrapping more citizens than the national norm in probation, where more fees, often reasonably unpayable, accrue. As a result, the risk of actual imprisonment and all its concominant problems looms over people for the pettiest of offenses.

The Institute for Justice observes that "Our review of the sample cities' laws turned up few provisions that would meaningfully protect people from fines and fees abuse." For example, none have ordinances that would "require municipal courts to provide jury trials when requested by a defendant, offer discovery or hold ability-to-pay hearings."

Neither do any "require their courts to consider non-jail alternatives to fines and fees, such as community service, educational programs, or school or work attendance," or to "prohibit courts from incarcerating or threatening to incarcerate people unable to pay fines and fees."

Taxation by citation also leads to "lower levels of trust and higher levels of ill will toward city government on the part of residents. Trust in government is the level of confidence citizens hold that 'authorities will observe the rules of the game and serve the general interest.' Because many people's primary experiences with the justice system involve dealing with police officers and local courts, excessive use of fines and fees can foment
distrust, damage residents' relationships with law enforcement and harm judicial credibility."

I suspect that no city official is going to stress so much about damaging citizen trust in institutions as long as they can keep turning poor people's lives into revenue spigots.

But they should consider, as the study notes, that this dire phenomenon of city's managing their finances on the back of petty harassment of poor citizens first burst to public prominence in the context of the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, following the 2014 police-caused death of Michael Brown.

It turns out that "from July 2010 through June 2014, Ferguson, a city of about 21,000 residents, issued 90,000 citations for municipal ordinance violations. And in the final 12 months of that period, police and code inspectors wrote almost 50% more citations than they did in the first 12. Significantly, the additional citations were largely for non-serious code offenses—not offenses like assault, driving while intoxicated and theft; the number
of citations for more serious crimes like those generally held steady."

In the long run, destroying citizen trust in institutions can have bad effects far more serious than a cracked driveway or daring to tint one's car window, even if officials want to forget—as they should not—how badly they can mess up someone's life for no good reason.

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  1. Taxation by citation also leads to “lower levels of trust and higher levels of ill will toward city government on the part of residents…”

    Not enough to vote a change apparently.

    1. Well, I assume that most of the bullshit citations are being levied against a particular subgroup of the general population. Mostly poor people who probably don’t vote anyway.

      1. Lots of them can’t, due to convictions. In some places, nonpayment of court fines bars you from voting as well, depending on the origin of the fines (those associated with probation for offenses, but not those from citations under ordinances).

  2. “Burdening the poor with vexatious fines—which potentially lead, if people are unable to pay their fines, to imprisonment—is bad for society.”

    However, the concept of equality under the law is important !
    @Reason does not think so apparently when it wishes special treatment for the “poor” or “rich”

    If @Reason wishes to reorganize the rules of bail, I suggest they do so that applies to ALL people in the same way.

    1. Yes, the $1000 bail applies equally to the rich and the poor, just as the law against sleeping under bridges applies equally to homeowners and the homeless.

    2. Or maybe the author is focusing on poor people because that’s where these fines have the most impact? Where is it implied that there should be special treatment?

    3. Scandinavian countries levy fines by ability to pay and as a percentage of wealth. That is how a millionaire got a 100K fine for excessive speeding. I think that sort of system is equal and fair. If you are worried about poor people speeding too much under such a system, the income or wealth based fines doesn’t replace subsequent penalties such as license loss nor replace the impact on car insurance rates, if the state requires insurance.

  3. I’ve often wondered about having another chamber in every legislature, whose representatives would be elected by taxes. If you paid $10,000 in taxes, you get 10,000 in votes. And the legislators themselves would vote how much taxes they represent.

    The primary affect would be a veto of sorts, since all bills would have to pass all chambers to be passed by the legislature and signed by the executive.

    You’d count every single penny paid to the government. In these cities, then, the people who got all those petty tickets would have disproportionate votes come election time. It would be interesting, not least because the city councils would need to be split into two chambers.

    1. I like this idea, but we need to make it clear that *any* money paid to the government is considered taxes, not just taxes themselves.

  4. In the long run, destroying citizen trust in institutions can have bad effects far more serious than a cracked driveway or daring to tint one’s car window

    Effects like becoming libertarians?

    1. from perspective of the Institutional yes.

    2. Doherty is not a real libertarian.

      He supports coercive monopolies – like state government – while pretending to support a free market..

      1. Not everyone is an anarchist.

        1. It’s weird, usually statists are the ones who need reminding that libertarianism != anarchism. You usually don’t see that coming from the anarchist side.

      2. Philosophical libertarians are not anarchists, however much you might wish them to be. At best they’re minarchists, really, or possibly voluntarists.

        While the LP includes a rather strident wing of anarchists (like myself) I don’t demand that they adopt my orthodoxy when that’s explicitly not their expressed philosophy. The type of government they espouse would be a substantial improvement over what exists now, so I’m willing to work with them, even though my personal preference would be “none.” While you are certainly free to sit in a corner sniveling about how everyone is the enemy, it won’t make you useful or relevant.

        1. What’s a bigger fantasy? No state or a limited state?

          1. Honestly, limited government (stably so over the long term) is probably the bigger fantasy.

            Power is a ratcheting attractor in the state space.

            The way I see it, you can either have no legislative/judicial monopoly, or you have one and it needs to be reset every couple of centuries, at obscene human and economic cost.

  5. What is the tax rate for tar, feathers, rails, torches, pitchforks, etc?

  6. Petty fines?
    That’s the problem.
    If city governments were wise, they would fine people $100,000 for parking violations, $250,000 for jaywalking, $500,000 for exhaling without a valid permit, etc.
    You would think all these city fathers would wake up.

  7. Training at the city level prepares one for higher office. You move on from raising money through citations to shaking down successful but unpopular corporations…

  8. Sounds like your basic graft and corruption.

  9. Of course, cities like this could try to balance their budgets by not doing so goddamned much, bu that would be Truly Awful.

    1. Most of these cities aren’t really trying to do a ton – the small/medium size ones, anyways, Chicago and its ilk are a different story. Their problem is that they have these legacy pension liabilities coupled with the hollowing out of their tax base as jobs leave for large metro areas. It’s put their budgets under a lot of pressure, and since they don’t get to do the fancy accounting that higher levels of government can do to disguise the precarious nature of their balance sheets it’s tough for them to get credit or issue bonds with reasonable rates.

      Now, to be clear, the method they’ve chosen to try and resolve this problem is despicable, and ultimately will only hasten the decline they’ve entered. But no one has ever accused governments of having much in the way of foresight or good sense.

  10. The fact that three cities in Georgia derive so much of the city revenue from fines in very disturbing. It is in a way a form of a sin-tax and sin taxes may be ok at a small level. I would question using more that 5% of this revenue in an overall budget. There is a real case here where the city is not taxing appropriately for the services it provides. It is easy enough to suggest cutting services but its unclear that can really be done.

    1. Takes a real pro to fit that much squish into a single paragraph!

  11. If I lived near those cities, I wouldn’t spend a single dime there. Let their business rot and then see how those city governments survive.

  12. I would proposes that *any* money paid to the government is a conflict of interest. It encourages the government to seek out revenue, whether it be through fines or civil forfeiture.

    I think we would do well to borrow an idea from the Law of Moses and Medeival Icelandic society: any fine that we would levy would go directly to supporting people who are harmed. Drunk driving? Fines go to pay for people who are harmed, or to families who lost a loved one, to drunk or reckless driving. Parking violations? While it’s difficult to track down every person who was unable to find a parking space, we could at least throw these fines into the accident trust fund. Drug use? We could use the fines to help people overcome their addictions, if we insist that using drugs produces victims. (While I’m convinced that drug use isn’t necessarily a victimless crime, it shouldn’t be a criminal matter — employers and family of the abuser are the ones who should be pursuing damages.)

    If a certain slush fund is getting to big, or if we’re having a hard time figuring out who, exactly, is the victim of a certain crime, these should be signals that maybe the things we consider to be crimes might not be crimes after all….

    1. Oh, and I forgot: civil forfeiture without a clear verdict of guilt, declared by a jury, should be unConstitutional. Yes, this also means no plea bargaining — because plea bargaining has effectively gutted our jury system. Anything less, again, would be a conflict of interest, pushing governments to consider people guilty just so they could take the money and property.

      1. Uh, civil asset forfeiture IS unconstitutional.
        What’s your point?
        (once guilt is declared, monies taken are a fine, not a forfeiture)

        1. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court has ruled otherwise.

          There are countless examples of assets that are forfeited, and the owners of the assets aren’t even charged with a crime. It is the asset itself that is considered guilty until proven innocent, and the owners of the asset have to hire lawyers and pay legal fees to get it back.

          It’s disgusting, really, and it’s a good reminder that we can’t depend on the Supreme Court to defend our liberties!

  13. Didn’t the DoJ call out Ferguson MO for using petty fines as a major revenue source, in the Michael Brown investigation?

  14. City governments deserve distrust and ill will. What do you expect from petty thugs?

  15. The question on my mind is — If punishment cannot be financial what will the punishment for traffic violations be? Containment?

    I just don’t think a scolding is motivation enough to stop breaking the law.

    1. Vehicle impoundment for a week or two for minor parking stuff, a month or two for no damage speeding and the like.

  16. I was given a chickensh!t parking ticket in Laguna Beach, CA 45 years ago. I still do NOT go to that city voluntarily.

    Knew someone who did municipal audits. You’d be surprised how many cities fund a SIGNIFICANT portion of their budget through parking fines.

    If it was about providing parking, they could easily require MORE spaces. The city controls the zoning.

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