Cities need to stop "taxation by citation" practices

Luay Rahil
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Macks Creek is a small town located in southwest Camden County, Missouri. According to the 2020 Census, less than 376 people live in that small town.

For years, Macks Creek collected 85% of its total revenue from speeding tickets. The town had the most infamous speed traps in the nation. Their officers strictly enforced a 45-MPH speed limit along the narrow highway that divided the town in the middle.

However, in 1995, Missouri passed a law prohibiting cities and towns from collecting more than 45% of their total revenue from speeding tickets. Two years later, every town officials resigned from office, and the city declared bankruptcy, and the town was dissolved in 2012.

Mack Creek is not unique. According to a national database compiled by Governing magazine, at least 80 cities rely on citations to generate over half of their budget revenue. Most of those cities came from just four states: Georgia, Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma. For example, Robeline is a small community in Louisiana, it is less than one square mile, but its police department managed to rack up nearly $570,000 in fines or 84% of its total budget—the fifth-highest share in the nation.

Major cities in the United States are just as guilty of using their police department as a revenue source. For example, Nick Sibilla, Forbes Senior Contributor, asserts that "Washington, D.C generated $304 in fine revenue per capita—one of the highest amounts for a city of its size. And New York City has collected well over $1 billion in court revenue per year."

Train the Police to Keep the Peace, Not Turn a Profit

The New York Times is warning cities from relying on citations revenue to balance their budgets, "Policing for profit encourages unfair enforcement of the law. It also increases the likelihood that motorists stopped for infractions largely unrelated to public safety will be killed or injured during encounters with officers who are trained to view traffic stops as moments of mortal peril."

Two years ago, the Governing magazine conducted a survey and discovered that more than 600 cities rely on fines and fees to fund at least 10 percent of their budget. According to the New York Times, this number increased to 730 in less than two years. I suspect this number will keep growing unless we stop this practice of stopping motorists for the sake of making money.

Taxation by Citation

A 2020 report from the Institute for Justice describes this practice as "taxation by citation," which happens when local authorities issue tickets to increase revenue rather than protect the public. In addition, the nationwide study of state laws found unreasonable financial incentives and a lack of legislative oversight almost in every state.

The report also concluded that municipalities that rely on traffic-ticket revenue sometimes have larger police departments than are needed only to give more citations. For example, Henderson, La., got nearly 90 percent of its overall revenue from fines and fees in 2019. Sometimes, small-town officers issue citations outside their legal jurisdiction just to make more money. However, state officials are investigating these illegal practices.

Giving tickets for the sake of raising money is not a good policy. However, giving tickets outside an officer's jurisdiction is illegal. The Atlantic believes that "No community should be policed so aggressively. But if a community is over-policed, the police themselves seem to be under-policed. And if police believe that aggressive policing of communities works, then on what basis could they object to a dose of their own medicine?"

I understand those police departments have to keep the peace, but they should never turn a profit. There is no denying that motorists have responsibilities, fixing their tail lights, driving without expired registration tags, and obeying traffic laws, but there is no excuse to use the police department to make money. It is not safe for the officers or the residents of any community.

I support every police officer in the world, and their safety comes first. But I don't support this "gotcha" mentality regarding traffic fines. Traffic tickets are triple fines, insurance raises rates, attorneys make money, and cities generate revenue at your expense.

What do you think of the "taxation by citation" practice?

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