Bad Public Policy: Turning Police Into Tax Collectors

This is an excellent editorial by Judge C. Victor Lander, an administrative judge in Dallas Municipal Court. It originally appeared in the Dallas Morning News titled as “Are traffic fines a punishment or a fundraiser?” and has been republished here with his permission.

Let the punishment fit the crime.

That has been a basic principle of justice in nearly all legal systems dating back to ancient times. However, in recent years, the penalties for violating municipal traffic laws increasingly have more to do with the state’s revenue needs than the severity of the crime.

Since 2002, the amount of fees that the Texas Legislature has added to each city or county traffic fine has more than doubled, from $40 to $82. This is the amount that municipal and justice courts must collect on each traffic violation and send to the state.

Now, legislators in Austin are considering two bills that together would raise the state fees on traffic violations to $107. In many cases, that $107 in state fees would be more than the fine assessed by the city or county.

Many drivers are shocked when they learn they have to pay $200 or more for what they consider to be a minor traffic infraction.

Turning law enforcement officers into tax collectors for the state is simply bad public policy on a number of levels.

First, it violates our sense of fairness about a penalty being proportionate to the offense. When legislators debate bills to raise state fees on traffic violations, the discussion is not about whether a driver who fails to signal a lane change should be fined an additional $10 or $15. Legislators openly admit that their intent is to raise more revenue without voting for a tax increase. They focus most of their attention on the worthy state programs that will be financed by the additional revenue, such as indigent defense or trauma care. I am not taking issue with those worthy programs. But it is unfortunate that legislators resort to bad public policy in their attempt to accomplish something good.

Second, it undermines our system of political accountability. For legislators, state fees on municipal traffic tickets translates into a lot of free money — $235 million in 2010. Plus the state pays nothing for the enforcement of local traffic laws. The state contributes nothing to the cost of police officer salaries, health insurance and retirement.

Legislators can avoid the negative consequences of voting for a tax increase while claiming credit for public benefits provided by the state program that is being funded. Meanwhile, irate motorists blame police officers, municipal courts and city officials for spiraling traffic fines and wonder what the city is doing with all the money it is collecting.

Finally, there is the issue of reaching a point of diminishing returns. As state fees on city traffic fines have escalated, more drivers either can’t afford to pay the fines or refuse to pay. Statewide, the collection rate is about 65 percent, and in some cities, 50 percent or less. If the Legislature increases the total amount of state fees on each violation, the collection rate will most likely further decline.

Cities will have to decide whether to reduce the amount of the fine assessed in order to keep the overall penalty proportionate to the seriousness of the offense. As the sate claims a larger share of traffic ticket revenue, cities will have less to pay for law enforcement and other city services.

There are 15 million licensed drivers in Texas. There were more than 6 million traffic convictions in 2009. Some legislators say higher court fees are justifiable because violators “are not law-abiding citizens; they are criminals.”

Yes, they broke a traffic law, endangering themselves and others. Every driver who plead guilty or is found guilty in court of violating a traffic law deserves to be penalized. But Texas drivers also deserve a penalty that is based on the seriousness of the violation rather than the size of the state’s budget shortfall.

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