Institute of Justice Report: Municipal Fines and Fees–A 50-State Survey of State Laws

Despite increasing and significant attention to this issue, proposed solutions have been limited, often focusing on local political remedies, such as voting out municipal officials who engage in taxation by citation and adopting municipal-level legislative reforms, or very targeted state-level fixes, such as caps on the fines and fees revenue municipalities can keep.22 Such proposals have their attractions, but they also suffer from serious inadequacies: Removing elected officials and adopting municipal-level reforms require a healthy political environment, but a healthy political environment is unlikely to give rise to taxation by citation in the first place.23 And passing individual reforms at the state level fails to address the sprawl of unconnected laws that likely affect municipal fines and fees behavior. For example, in the 1990s, the Missouri General Assembly capped the annual revenue municipalities could keep from traffic tickets in an effort to curb speed traps.24 But because the law applied only to moving violations on federal and state roads, municipalities could and did continue to issue citations for nonmoving violations and other municipal code violations.25

In order to understand municipal fines and fees behavior and propose more comprehensive policy solutions, a more systematic approach is needed. One such approach is an analysis based on state laws that may be related to municipal taxation by citation. Given that municipalities are political subdivisions of states and so subject to their laws, state legislatures may be well situated to address municipal fines and fees behavior.