The other revenue traps

Contrary to popular opinion, not all traffic enforcement is highway robbery. Some of it isn’t even about money, but today I’m writing about money. Specifically, the other two kinds of revenue-based enforcement.

We’ve all heard about traditional highway robbery, where governments try to fund themselves from ticket revenue, usually by running speed traps. In the Northeast it’s mainly the State Police who do that; in the Midwest mostly local police.

Sometimes ticket revenue is incidental to the main goal. You still pay, of course, but they’re not just after your money.

I saw a major speed trap in a small town in Connecticut, where police only keep $10 per ticket. A kid running a lemonade stand could do as well. Why did they do it? Still for the money, but a different kind.

A third of your gas tax goes to Washington, which sends some of it back to states in the form of enforcement grants. Police get federally-funded overtime pay with the expectation that they will make quota.

That police force got $10 per ticket from drivers on top of an all expenses paid trip to the shoulder of Route 67. Salary plus commission.

If you hear a rhyming threat or meant-to-be-cute slogan, it’s a strong indicator of federal funding. Slogans come from marketing departments. Your police force doesn’t have a marketing department. The federal DOT does. It’s called NHTSA, and it’s likely the reason you got a ticket.

NHTSA funds programs police don’t think are worth their time and money. Who cares about zero-tolerance seat belt enforcement? Washington. If somebody else picks up the bill, police will take the money.

I consider this an illegitimate use of federal money. But who is going to stop it? One of NMA’s members in local government votes on principle against accepting such grants, and loses to other politicians who would sell their government to the highest bidder.

That’s the second kind of revenue enforcement. The third is a much different sort of highway robbery.

I-84 entering Massachusetts is a favorite hunting ground for State Police, yet I drive as if police weren’t there. The officer sees a middle-aged white guy in a nice sedan with Massachusetts plates. He might have a bag of golf clubs in the trunk but definitely not a bag of cocaine.

Look like a drug runner and they’ll pull you over no matter what you’re doing.

On the street corners the war on drugs is a war on crime. Street corner drug dealers don’t have a lot of money.

On highways the war on drugs is a business. If police accuse cash of being drug-related, they can take it. Money is presumed guilty.

The federal government has long encouraged this form of highway robbery. If police find cash in a car, they steal it and send it to Washington. Washington takes a cut and sends the rest back to them. This overrules state laws which might say forfeitures go to the general fund or schools or some other non-corrupt purpose.

There was sign of hope last year when the Attorney General announced the federal government would cut back on rewards to police who rob motorists. (The bureaucratic euphemism is restricting the equitable sharing program.) Unfortunately, the money is flowing again.

So the lesson today is don’t look like you have drugs, don’t visit cities that sell their police forces to the highest bidder, and don’t visit states that encourage traditional highway robbery.

Could be difficult.

Do they have traffic cops in Antarctica?

The opinions expressed in this post belong to the author and do not necessarily represent those of the National Motorists Association or the NMA Foundation. This content is for informational purposes and is not intended as legal advice. No representations are made regarding the accuracy of this post or the included links.

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