Anyone who's been behind the wheel on a road trip is familiar with the rural speed trap: a small town bisected by a large highway where the speed limit drops to 45 or even 35 miles per hour, where local law enforcement is pulling over as many violators as possible. As it turns out, this aggressive enforcement isn't entirely malicious, but instead can be the product of a dwindling tax base and corresponding lack of public funds.
"Any city that's short on revenue is going to be tempted to use the judicial system," Lisa Foster, co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center told Governing when discussing Turner County, Georgia's addiction to speeding fines. "Georgia is a classic example of a place where you have these inextricable ties between the police, the town, and the court." But Georgia is far from the only locale where fines and fees make up a large portion of municipal revenue, and that kind of dependence can have damaging effects on community-police relations.
Governing compiled data from thousands of annual financial audits and reports filed to state agencies to study fine revenues and the extent to which they fund local budgets. "High fine communities can be found in just about every state," the analysis showed, "but they tend to be concentrated in certain parts of the country. Rural areas with high poverty have especially high rates." In at least 284 of the jurisdictions studied, fines were used to fund more than 20 percent of the local budget. The study also showed that the dependence on fines was lower in areas with higher property taxes.
But it's not just speed traps targeting out-of-towners on their way through, according to Governing. Fines and fees relating to any crime or ordinance violation can funnel revenue to city and county coffers:
Fines and fees are not the same thing. Fines serve as punishment for committing offenses; fees are levied to support operational expenses. Different states charge fees for mandatory services such as drug tests, monthly parole meetings, or even for a jury trial. Failure to pay those fees can result in interest charges and other surcharges. While both fines and fees have been on the rise in recent years, it’s the fees that have swelled the most, and these days they’re often used to fund parts of government that have little to do with the justice system itself.
The issue of municipal dependence on fines and fees surfaced in the wake of Michael Brown's shooting in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. Part of the Justice Department's investigation into the city's police department determined "systematic racial profiling combined with a priority on revenue production led to illegal and unconstitutional behavior on the part of law enforcement and court officials." That focus on revenue production is prevalent throughout the St. Louis metro area, where drivers often encounter officers from different suburban police departments lying in wait within half-miles of each other.
While Missouri lawmakers responded by capping the proportion of revenue that can be generated from minor traffic violations (and forfeiture revenues in Ferguson plummeted from more than $2 million to about $300,000, according to Governing), The New York Times reports that black drivers in Ferguson continue to be stopped at much higher rates than white drivers, by an even larger margin than five years ago:
Statewide, black motorists were nearly twice as likely as other motorists to be stopped, based on their share of the driving-age population, according to the Missouri attorney general’s annual report on traffic stops. White drivers were stopped 6 percent less than would be expected. In Ferguson, the disparity in traffic stops of black drivers has increased by five percentage points since 2013, while it has dropped by 11 percentage points for white drivers.
So, even as some states are trying to wean themselves off their traffic fine addiction, they have yet to adequately address the racial disparities in day-to-day policing.