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Let’s Reconsider Traffic Enforcement

| January 17, 2019

Traffic enforcement is a hoax.  There, I said it.  Well, maybe it is not a hoax—we do actually do it after all—but it is not what it appears to be.  It is a tax, more or less, without the political stigma such a term brings with it.  It is time to change that.

While Right on Crime does not often support its positions through anecdotal information, please indulge me for a few moments and decide for yourself the logic of my position.

During my twenty-one years as a police officer, I would conservatively estimate that I investigated over 1,000 traffic accidents.  In all of those accidents, I never found an expired registration sticker to be the cause of the accident.  I never found that a driver waiting to signal until 90 feet before a turn, instead of the required 100 feet, was the cause of an accident.  I never found an air freshener dangling from a rearview mirror to be the cause of highway carnage.  I could go on—there are thousands of traffic codes throughout the county.

Despite this admittedly small sampling, I am confident that other police officers would admit the same experience.  Most accidents are caused by actual bad driving: following too close; traveling too fast for conditions; or failing to yield where required.  Much of the traffic code criminalizes things that do not contribute much to roadway safety, which is almost universally the reason given for their enforcement.  Anyone questioning the logic of such enforcement allows for the simple answer of “roadway safety” to be indignantly pointed to as beyond reproach.  Who would pursue such a question in the face of such an unimpeachable and worthy answer?

Having been in management staff meetings on more than a few occasions, where the chief would express concern over a decline in citation productivity (number of tickets the patrolmen are writing) of the patrol division or, on occasion an individual officer, it was always clear that ticket-writing was a measure of an officer’s productivity.  Traffic safety was only tangential to the discussion (perhaps in the realm of DUI enforcement).  More importantly, the city board would inquire about any drop in ticket writing and it was made clear to the supervisors that this was unacceptable. Was it because of a rise in traffic accidents or roadway safety complaints from constituents?  That was never made apparent. What was apparent was that revenue generated from traffic tickets—something the city accountant actually used as a predictor for revenue in upcoming budgets—was affected.

As a revenue generator, traffic tickets are a local politician’s best friend.  They can be increased as needed by a simple order from the top that enforcement be stepped up.  There is no shortage of violations and violators to cite…ever. Lest anyone complain, the response that “it is for traffic safety” shrouds the politician in an unimpeachable blanket of righteousness by looking out for our families, especially our children. We need a law against that crack in your windshield so that we might save just onechild.

If you have any doubt that the violations and violators are endless, try this mental exercise. First, read through the entire vehicle code in your state.  In the month or so that it takes to do that, try to memorize all of the violations so that you have a clear picture of what you can and cannot do.  Yes, I realize this is unfair, because it is impossible. There is no way you could possibly know all of the ways you might violate the traffic law as an average citizen. In order to make this exercise plausible, just stick with the more common statutes and local ordinances (laws may vary for each city or county you pass through, so add their ordinances to your reading list as well).  Now think back to your drive into work this morning. Did you use your turn signal for every lane change?  Did you signal at least 100 feet before making a turn?  Did you exceed the speed limit, even by one mile per hour?  Did you drop down to 35 mph for the exit ramp from the 75 mph you were at on the highway in time?

You don’t have to answer; we all know the response.  I chose these examples because these were just some of the violations I can recall from my drive in to work this morning.  I would add that each violation probably occurred more than once, and a few of them occurred many times.  I would also add that despite this apparent recklessness and disregard for the law, I made it to work without getting into a traffic accident.  I didn’t even incur the wrath of my fellow travelers, as evidenced by a lack of finger waving or horn blaring.

If the average traffic ticket would incur a $100 fine, how much would my drive in to work have cost me today had I been ticketed for each violation? $1,000? More?  How much would it cost me to get back home?

When I was a recruit in the police academy a lifetime ago, I remember an instructor telling our class “If you are following a car for more than three blocks and haven’t found a violation to stop it for, then you just aren’t looking.”  He was right. None of us are capable of complying with the entirety of the vehicle code for any length of time.  That does not seem to make much sense.  The entire goal of policing is to gain voluntary compliance with the law—something that cannot be done if the law cannot be understood or followed by the average person.

We should examine the notion that tickets are all about traffic safety. Let me paint a scenario for you from the eyes of a police officer and let you decide:

I am sitting in my patrol car on the side of the highway and see you drive by at the legal speed limit of 75 mph, but notice you are not wearing your seatbelt.  In order to preserve everyone’s safety, I pull out into traffic and rapidly accelerate to 90 mph in order to catch up to you.  Once I do, I activate my overhead lights and we both pull over to the shoulder of the road—my car offset a little in order to protect your vehicle which places it within a foot or so of the traffic lane next to the shoulder.  With cars passing us between 55 and 75 mph in the three lanes next to our cars, I get out of my car right next to the passing vehicles and approach your car.  I am mindful that I do not know you. I do not know how you will respond to me once I get up to your car, so I have to watch your every move inside your car and also monitor the passing traffic to avoid being hit by a car.  After our conversation, I return to my vehicle to run your information and issue the citation before once again venturing up to your vehicle and monitoring you and the surrounding traffic while explaining the ticket to you. After we conclude the stop, we both have to navigate our way back out into the roadway where traffic is flying by at 75 mph without getting hit.

Though technically a hypothetical situation, this is not an uncommon scenario at all.  In order to issue a citation for not wearing your seatbelt, an infraction that has almost no chance of causing a traffic accident, I have created massive traffic hazards for you, myself, and the general motoring public—just by making the traffic stop.  We have to createtremendous roadway hazards in order to enforce these laws that are justified by the promise that they will enhance traffic safety.  Makes complete sense, right?

Custodial arrests for fine-only offenses: A “crutch for lazy policing” and a circumvention of Fourth Amendment intent

Here is another thing that might be of interest to the motorist.  Traffic violations, including the ten you probably committed on your way to work without knowing, can result in your being arrested if the officer chooses to do that.  Handcuffed, placed in the back of the squad car, driven to the station, fingerprinted, photographed…. arrested.  “For not wearing my seatbelt?”you might ask. In the case of Atwater v Lago Vista (2001), the United States Supreme Court found that a custodial arrest, even for a crime that did not carry jail as a possible consequence, was reasonable under Fourth Amendment scrutiny. They did not say it was a good idea, only that it did not violate the Fourth Amendment—which then left it to the states to decide how to address the issue.  Texas has yet to pass a law restricting an officer’s ability to take physical custody of an offender for a “fine only” offense, meaning that the physical arrest is more punitive than the sentence would be if the offender were found guilty.

Some police officers will refer to this ability to arrest for any offense as a tool for law enforcement. This “tool” allows an officer who suspects that someone might be committing a crime to stop that person for an unrelated infraction.  Once the person commits an unavoidable traffic code offense (recall the three block rule from above) and the officer stops them, the officer can then arrest the offender and pursue other methods to investigate the crime they actuallysuspect the person of committing, perhaps via an inventory search of the vehicle before they tow it.  I would bet most of you reading this had no idea this could happen for a regular traffic violation.

It is difficult to argue that this is not a tool for police officers, but it would be more akin to a sledgehammer than a scalpel in application.  Good police officers develop solid cases without such blatant circumvention of the spirit of the Fourth Amendment.  This “tool” is actually a crutch for lazy policing, and is ripe for abuse in the very rare case where an officer chooses to abuse their authority for nefarious reasons. 

It is also contrary to any conservative view of liberty.

Remedies for these issues will be hard fought, but are important.  Here some recommendations:

  • Recognizing that law enforcement is a core function of government and properly appropriating for it will relieve the reliance on ticket revenue for governmental bodies.
  • Evaluating police officers on a metric that does not consider ticket productivity would relieve the pressure on officers to conduct unnecessary traffic enforcement activities.  
  • Passing a state law prohibiting most arrests (with specific exceptions as needed to identify an offender) for non-jailable offenses in order to promote quality policing and investigations while preserving the spirit of the Fourth Amendment’s protection of citizens.
  • Reevaluating the traffic code and identifying where enforcement really does enhance public safety, such as DUI’s or reckless driving, in order to have a code that can be followed by all motorists all of the time.

It is time we reconsider how our police officers are deployed and how we can most effectively utilize them to increase public safety while endearing them to their communities. Redefining traffic enforcement is one of those ways.  Perhaps we should ask police officers themselves how they feel the constant issuance of traffic citations affects their relationship with their communities. I don’t think we would be surprised by their answers.

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RANDY PETERSEN is a senior researcher for Right on Crime and the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

Petersen spent twenty-one years in law enforcement in Bloomingdale, Illinois, working in patrol, investigations, administration, and management. After retiring from the Bloomingdale Police Department, Randy moved to Texas where he was an instructor and Director of the Tarrant County College District Criminal Justice Training Center, of one of the largest police academies in the state. The academy was responsible for basic police training for over forty different police agencies in the DFW Metroplex as well as in-service training for current law enforcement officers from all over the country.

Randy is passionate about law enforcement and criminal justice policy issues and is pursuing his Doctor of Management in Homeland Security. His research specialties include the militarization of law enforcement, police training, and police assisted diversion programs. Randy holds a B.S. in Legal Studies and a M.S. in Justice Administration and Crime Management from Bellevue University. His free time is spent with his wife, kids, and horses.

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