Vice President of National Initiatives,
Texas Public Policy Foundation
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Chuck DeVore | November 2, 2016
This commentary originally appeared in Forbes on October 26, 2016.
“And we was fined fifty dollars and had to pick up the garbage… in the snow.” Arlo Guthrie – Alice’s Restaurant
Governments collect revenue in a variety of ways, some more visible than others: property taxes, sales taxes, income taxes, death taxes, business taxes (which are really taxes on consumers), and taxes on alcohol and tobacco.
Nobody likes to pay taxes. But, one particular source of revenue might undermine community trust in police: fines, fees and civil asset forfeitures collected by law enforcement.
Finding data on how much in way of fines, fees and forfeitures cities, counties and states collect isn’t easy. The U.S. Census Bureau does collect the information in surveys sent to tens of thousands of government entities across the nation, but, the data is aggregated into a general miscellaneous category of revenue (oddly enough, Census did report fines, fees and forfeiture revenue separately from about the turn of the last century to 1938). With some effort, the raw data can be pulled from the Census database, however.
The next challenge is breaking down revenue collection by city, county and state. Unfortunately, there are several large cities and counties around the nation that have consolidated operations, thus merging city and county fines and fees revenue. Excluding these cities, there are 67 cities in the U.S. with a population in excess of 250,000 for which data on fines and fees is available.
The per capita law enforcement-related fees, fines, and forfeitures revenue collected by city government in 2013, as adjusted by the metro area’s regional cost of living, varies widely. From a high of $226.78 per person in Washington D.C. and $97.07 in Chicago to nothing at all in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Omaha, Nebraska; Raleigh, North Carolina, Greensboro, North Carolina; and Lincoln Nebraska. Charlotte, North Carolina came the closest to zero collections at $0.21 per capita. (Note of caution: some cities may, in fact, collect fines and forfeiture revenue, but may not properly report it to the Census Bureau.) Slightly tempering Washington, D.C.’s astounding per capita collections of $226.78 is the fact that this includes county government functions as well, which average almost $10 per capita across more than 100 metro counties surveyed, thus, its city-to-city comparable collections are closer to $216.
Per Capita Fines, Fees, and Forfeitures Collected by City Government in 2013, as adjusted by the Regional Price Parity for the Metro Area for Cities with a Population Greater than 250,000.
|City||State||Per Capita Fines, Fees & Forfeiture Revenue in 2013 Adjusted by Local Cost of Living|
|New York||New York||$79.61|
|Jersey City||New Jersey||$33.94|
I asked Jon Guze, Director of Legal Studies at the John Locke Foundation in North Carolina, a free market think tank, why it was that North Carolina’s cities ranked among America’s lowest in terms of law enforcement revenue collection. He said that North Carolina’s constitution acts to discourage municipal government from using law enforcement as revenue agents because cities and can’t keep the money, thus removing a major conflict of interest. Instead, North Carolina has a unified court system where all justice-related penalties, forfeitures, and fines revenue accrues to the state, not the locality.
Unfortunately, even North Carolina has a challenge with federal civil asset forfeiture procedures which allow for adoption of certain cases by federal law enforcement with the revenue from assets forfeited through civil procedure being split between local and federal agencies.
Interestingly enough, Missouri’s constitution also has a prohibition on local revenue collection of fines similar to North Carolina’s, with a ban on local governments keeping money assessed from violations of state law. There’s a loophole however: local ordinances aren’t covered. So, Missouri cities are free to fine their residents for any variety of offenses that aren’t enumerated in state law.
In the wake of high-profile and deadly confrontations between law enforcement and citizens in places like Ferguson and Baltimore, where the use of uniformed officers to collect petty fines was cited as a likely irritant in police-community relations, it was interesting to note that at least one major city, Dallas, purposefully changed its fine and fees enforcement policy. As Radley Balko noted in the Washington Post in July:
“Between fiscal 2007 and fiscal 2013, the number of traffic tickets issued in Dallas dropped from 495,000 to under 212,000. That’s a massive cut. Brown (the police chief) reassigned traffic patrols to beats he felt were more conducive to public safety. In the past few years, we’ve seen appalling examples of cities stepping up enforcement of petty laws — often at the expense of policing for violent and property crimes — to help make up for budget shortfalls. Brown rejected that approach. ‘The purpose of traffic enforcement is to improve traffic safety, not to raise revenue,’ Brown told the Morning News. ‘We don’t believe the citizens of Dallas want its police department writing citations to raise revenues.’ The drop in citations did not cause a noticeable change in accidents or roadway fatalities.”
City council members and chiefs of police in Washington, Chicago, Boston, New York and Cleveland ought to seriously consider prioritizing basic policing over revenue generation. It will require some difficult budgetary prioritization for a year or two, but the return on investment in improved public safety and community relations would be worth it.