Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Small towns in much of the country are dependent on punitive fines and fees (governing.com)
166 points by wglb 55 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 158 comments

Punitive fines and fees are bad. Abuse of civil forfeiture is worse. But worse still are a minority of towns that not only are dependent on punitive fines, but that levy them in a racially biased way.

See https://www.npr.org/2014/08/25/343143937/in-ferguson-court-f... for an explanation of how this helped ignite the racial tension that Ferguson had a few years ago.

Yea this was the "elephant in the room" as I read this article. Even if the budgetary requirements necessitate that you pull a ton of people over regardless of race, I imagine the instances where probable cause requires you to pull an individual out of the car for a search are heavily biased.

Here's a short BBC radio programme about St Louis County, and it covers the same sort of thing. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05pqskm

> This edition of Crossing Continents goes out and about in St Louis County to meet the people who say they are victims of a system which sees arrest warrants issued for relatively minor misdemeanours. Many of the victims are poor and black. The programme also takes us into the courts, and out onto the freeways with some of the County's police, who say they are upholding the law and promoting road safety.

> The US government is not so sure. One of the towns in question is Ferguson where riots erupted after a white police officer shot a young black man dead last summer. In a recent report on the riots, the Department of Justice concluded that the Ferguson police had been stopping people for no good reason. It said they were putting revenue before public safety.

> and then arresting people when they don't pay [the fine].

So what should the government do if someone doesn't pay their fine?

>So what should the government do if someone doesn't pay their fine?

Just go through the process of taking the money instead, no different then a civil party who was owed a legitimate debt? There is no reason a fine should be any different. Just go through the standard process, get a court order for lien, and then just seize the money from any bank accounts, liquid assets, salary, or property of any value the person in question has (or ever will have in the future up to the statute of limitations). In fact the only real difference is that I don't think a fine is dischargeable in bankruptcy.

But why do you think there is any need to use force against the person in question, or pay to imprison them? It's not some moral issue, it's just a matter of them legitimately owing money. So just take the money (possibly allowing the working out of a payment plan). For the vast majority of cases that's all that's needed, and the few who truly live as hermits can be written off and suffer their own effective punishment anyway.

ya, I guess that makes sense. Thanks for being the first person to explain it to me like that.

Depending on the reason, anything from additional fines, commuting the sentence to community service, or perhaps jail.

There's a big difference between someone not paying a fine because their flat-out broke and not paying it because "fuck the system, I'm above the law."

Zero-Tolerance and One-Size-Fits-All policies are destructively stupid and result in bad outcomes. Context matters in a system of jurisprudence, but ignoring it makes the lives of those implementing and managing them easier though, which is probably the point.

>or perhaps jail

No. There should never be jail for debt. We have a lot of history seeing what debtors prison looks like and it's ugly, and also stupid because it's the government paying out a lot of money... to collect a bit of money? Usually paying out far more then the fine is anyway. Plus opportunity cost. Plus any value lost to society from whatever that person might have done outside of prison. Plus any extra cost that comes from them getting turned far worse while in prison. If someone has zero money, and will never in the future have any money, then sure blood can't be squeezed from stone and it's still better to write it off (or change the statute to require different recompense like service if it's deemed that important) than jail them. If they do have any money/property, or ever will collect any money/property down the road, that can be taken in due course.

The purpose of fines is to punish someone, not to raise money (except in failed and failing states, of course). Jailing someone who can't or won't pay as a replacement punishment is just common sense.

This seems like a huge problem. At the same time, it's easier to point out that it's a huge problem than to suggest a solution that doesn't have bad side effects. If the courts don't enforce the laws somehow, the worst repeat offenders end up seriously abusing their neighbors with no consequences. Replacing fines with time-consuming punishments like mandatory community service would be problematic, because low income folks often have little flexibility in their working hours, and getting fired from a job is even worse at a low level of income than it is for everyone else. It might be that just lowering the size of fines would help some, but it seems like a fine that couldn't hurt anyone also effectively punishes no one.

Maybe there's a middle ground where fines are punishing for repeat offenders, but ordinary folks who show up in court get a few slaps on the wrist before fines kick in? Are some of the laws already structured like this?

Pressing charges on black people to extract revenue from them is stealing.

In Georgia you can see the path I-75 and I-16 take through the southern half of the state.

16 is notorious for speed traps and other shadier stuff. Including road blocks on exit ramps with drug dogs waiting to sniff cars. They bait people into getting off at the exits by leaving fake signs about upcoming road blocks. When College kids were moving or getting out of school they’d be out in full force.

Sadly my Dad grew up in one of these towns. The fines were the only way to keep parts of the town alive.


  - Town is poor and economically desolate.
  - Town gets money from being legally petty to try to stay afloat.
  - Everyone who gets fines hates Town; wants to avoid it. 
  - Town is poor and economically desolate.
Not a prime long-term strategy. If the Town is already on life-support, then short-sightedness is their de facto choice if the Town going belly-up is their other option.

Yea if you think like a rational person. They don’t care what happens after they leave only the appearance of things while they are in office.

I wonder if it wouldn’t be better for such towns to die. I don’t know if there’s any reason to live in a place where you don’t really have a means to do anything productive or (apparently) provide for yourself.

In a county where 35% of households are under the poverty line you don’t really have that kind of choice.

My father was able to move because he got into Georgia Tech.

If you've driven between LA and SF you'll most likely be very aware of Kings County. A notorious speed trap that requires you to be on site to contest their questionable infractions.

If you’re in the “Jefferson” counties of northern California it’s not unusual to have cops waiting at the bottom of an off ramp for those drivers who practice “California rolls” at their stop signs. Locals seem to know better.

And then you hire a lawyer who "has a good relationship" with a judge

I never knew that was a speed trap. How do they enforce it? It seemed really easy to see cop cars, as long as you slowed down for bridges.

"keep parts of the town alive"

Which parts? The police force?

Seems to me that if your city doesn't bring in enough tax revenue to support a police force then you'd opt to have a volunteer police force.

What's the situation with fire departments in these towns?

They are likely volunteer only fire departments.

Any specific examples of this? I've been taking I-16 pretty routinely for most of my life, never heard of or ran into anything resembling a speed trap let alone bait.

Admittedly, I have some friends with a story about Georgia highway patrol / local PD setting up a roadblock off an interstate exit right by a Phish concert.

Yes I went to Georgia Southern briefly and had friends who graduated from there. A couple of our fraternity bothers got busted by the road block ahead trick. Maybe it was around Dublin.

Metter was/is a speed trap but I’ve only been through once in the past 5 years. Here’s a list from the AJC[1]. I can vouch for Doraville being a trap.


Now that I think about it a bit more, I do recall Dublin being an alleged hotspot, but to me it's the same way I've heard Jacksonboro, SC is a hotspot. Transit it a half-dozen or so times per year but never manage to see or otherwise run into actual trouble. Everyone I know will tell you it's a hotspot, but never has actual accounts of it.

Metter was and remains the family pitstop, and has never been trouble and I can't recall seeing any in the 10+ years that I can remember driving. Of course that's really only in the I-16 interchange area as opposed to transiting the town itself, perhaps further into the depths of Metter awaits a townie with a quota.

I wonder if police hotspots are a sort-of hipster problem, by the time you hear of them they've since moved on to greener pastures.

Why were the fines the only way to keep parts of the town alive?

Because small towns in the US are dying. Manufacturing and ag are down, services and tech are up. The former provided jobs evenly spread throughout the US where raw materials and good land were. The latter encourage consolidation in denser metro areas.

A local government is an economic entity too. It takes in income from some set of people and distributes services in return. Taxes mean getting income from the residents, which in turn means those residents need to be acquiring money from outside of the area to compensate for that. When jobs are dying, that money stops coming in. Traffic fines let a small town extract money directly from people outside of the city, which means it places no burden on the citizens receiving the services.

I'm not saying this is morally justified, but that's how the system works economically.

These small towns are in a really rough spot. Many services are not fully elastic and can't arbitrarily scale down. It's not like you can say "the fire department only puts out fires between 3 and 6 PM." A sewer line that only goes halfway to a house is not 50% useful. Below a certain level of wealth and density, a city simply can't sustain the services it needs to provide to its citizens. Their options are:

1. Take in money from larger government organizations. State and federal funding can keep these cities alive. This is how, for example, they're able to still provide mail service, because it's the US Postal Service. With this, basically the larger metro areas are supporting these small towns out of duty to the greater good.

2. Extract money from people living outside of the area directly. That's what this article is about.

3. Disincorporate entirely. This does happen sometimes, but obviously this has a lot of downsides. Actual humans do live in these places, and these cities have long histories. Times change and some things do naturally go away, but there is a material loss when it happens.

The police lacked funding and the population of the towns were falling. If they raised taxes the very limited business could leave. The state did do something to prevent speed traps[1], not sure if it worked or passed.

Sheriff is a political job and even more so in small towns. It’s just as much of a mayor type job as it is a policing one.

Their entire school system had less students than my high school in metro Atlanta.


I doubt the town would die without the fines. They're surely the most convenient way to collect money thought.

I should rephrase it as “the town was dying and needed money” rather than it would die without the money.

Hell, I'd say that any town that leverages against the economically poor to benefit the economically elite is bad, and just going by the way fines are handed out, that happens everywhere. Only a handful of countries fine you by according to how much you make. While doing this can add an extra incentive for the rich to be dishonest (which happens anyway), by not doing it you are essentially telling the rich that they are above the law - which is something that large swaths of ultrarich both already believe and know to be true.

I'm from a country with so-called day fines: a fine is a multiplier of your daily earnings. It boggles my mind that a similar system isn't in use everywhere. It's easy to understand and fair to everyone; a deterrent against infractions independent of your income.

Yet another reason for the wealthy to obfuscate their earnings.

Earnings are visible in tax decisions. Dodging taxes is a crime in itself, and unrelated to day fines.

Does the fine also consider your average daily capital gains? If I make $200mm a year in investment returns and take a $0 salary do I get a paltry fine?

Capital gains are included. If you realized $200 million before getting some day fines you'll have a new record and your face in yellow press front covers.

If it was independent to your income, then your income should not matter. The fine should be proportional to the infraction/crime/damage.

In case my wording wasn't clear enough: level of deterrent obviously shouldn't depend on your income, which this system roughly achieves. (Doesn't totally achieve it: a poor person can't in truth afford to lose any of their income, while a rich one could easily temporarily let go of over 90% without it affecting anything; for that I don't see an easy fix.)

As said, I can't imagine a moral justification for not implementing some similar scheme.

> If it was independent to your income, then your income should not matter.

The effect of a file is strongly dependent on your income, so if fines are to have any deterrent effect, it must also be dependent on your income.

If I were moderately wealthy, there would be no incentive not to just think of the fine as a fee to break any ordinance wherever and whenever I wanted. Fines aren't costs, they are a deterrent.

Part deterrent, part punishment. Consider if I punched you in the face, you laughed it off and I get charged with assault; versus: I punch you, you're now disabled for life, and I get charged with assault. Should it be based on my income?

That would not be based on day fines; fines and compensation are two different topics. "Disabled for life" sounds like prison time plus monetary compensation for the victim.

Right, which is my point. I think it should be proportional to the infraction/crime/damages. (Anyway, I am just having a conversation, will have to understand it better.)

It is still proportional to the crime, right? Just like with prison sentence: withholding of freedom is the deterrent part, and it hurts both rich and poor the same pretty much everywhere in the world (ignoring corruption). Day fines follow the same deterrent principle for smaller infractions: proportional to the crime and treats citizens in a roughly equal manner.

Compensating someone for damages, be it for the victim's health or possessions, is then supposed to follow the real inflicted costs and does not include a deterring component, thus monetarily equal regardless of the perpetrator's income. I'd suppose this is the same almost everywhere?

Edit: so to clarify, compensation paid to the victim isn't based on your income, only the fines part that is paid to the state as a deterrent is.

For starters, there are constitutional barriers, one being the excessive fines clause.

And there are multiple jurisdictions. Imagine Arizona giving a California resident a $50000 speeding ticket. Or L.A. (city) levying income based parking tickets on Beverly Hills and Orange County residents (neighboring communities with ultra wealthy people).

> Only a handful of countries fine you by according to how much you make.

Example: speeding tickets in Switzerland. A guy driving his Lamborghini through a village at 60mph had a ticket for several hundred thousand dollars handed to him while I was living there.

At 60mph ~= 100km/h in city limits (50km/h) it is not a simple fine anymore but a criminal charge. Fines are fixed no matter how much you make. (e.g. 1-5km/h above limit is CHF 40.00)

Which is bad.

No it isn't. Handing a $100 fine to person X and person Y is ridiculous when person X makes minimal wage and person Y is a C level executive making $400K. Normalizing the fine to the median income and proportionate changing it by income level is equitable and fair. You can look for legal precedence in bail hearings, where wealth and flight risk are definitely and correctly taken into account.

Bail hearings you get the money back when you show up. Bail is about not being stored in jail while you await your trial -- you are innocent at that point. They want to make sure you don't run away, and in fact many are beginning to push for lower bail requirements.

In theory you get the money back. In practice, you have to borrow the money from a bail bondsman who has the cash on hand to post bail, and then pay him a percentage for his services.

There are also jurisdictions which charge filing and handling fees on bail, which you never get back, which can be up to 10%. For 10k bond, which is pretty normal many places, that means 1000, just gone, not even accounting for the bond.

This is all just so you can continue to live your life and not sit in jail while waiting for trial correct? That just seems wild to me. If you don't have the money, or can't get a loan, you probably lose your job due to being in jail, which now your entirely livelihood is at stake. It just seems so broken.

Yes, you are essentially correct - it was a well-intentioned reform that has not been re-evaluated for current times, or it is judges who lack personal finance skills or realities to know that the bails they impose are not realistic for those who appear in their courts.

Discriminating against race, age, gender is bad. You need to treat people fairly. However, when it comes to rich people you think it's OK?

It isn't discrimination to treat people differently. By this logic you shouldn't have handicap parking spaces because that discriminates against people that can't use them. Making people pay the same amount of money for the same crime is discriminating against the poor because the effect on them is higher even though it was the same crime.

If fines are intended to be punitive, and intended to discourage people from committing crimes, then a person's wealth is the only thing it makes sense to base them on.

Otherwise, wealthy people can flout fine-based laws with virtual impunity, while poor can't. That doesn't seem fair, that seems like justice for the poor, lawlessness for the rich.

"If fines are intended to be punitive..."

Exactly! The _intent_ of the action is one of the most important aspects. If a group is disproportionately being penalized (the poor in this case) then the action (the fine) isn't actually fulfilling its intent (to prevent all who receive the fine from breaking the law).

This is why "points" where introduced in numerous states to create a demerit point system. Even if a driver can afford 1,000 speeding tickets in a year they will lose their license after receiving a specific amount of demerit points.[1]


We already do it with progressive taxes. Fines are just a type of tax, so why can't they be progressive too?

"We already do it" is not really an argument. Many people (rightly or wrongly) disagree with progressive taxation so it's really just an appeal to a non-existent consensus.

“We already do it” absolutely is an argument. There’s a thing in law called precedent.

My impression was that this is a website for logical discussions, not legal appeals.

"Fine the rich because they're globalist pedophiles" is also an argument of sorts but not to the standard I'm talking about.

Race, age and gender are features of a person so I don't think they are all that analogous to wealth/income which is just something said person has.

Isn't the fine supposed to be punitive and discourage further infractions? If that is the case, the fine will have to scale with the perpetrators income in order to retain bite.

Why? Speeding kills. It seems reasonable to me that the ticket be proportional to your means, so you don't have a regressive effect where poor people are highly impacted and rich people laugh it off.

Speeding kills your pocketbook.

For a billionaire, that's the same amount of bad as when I get a ticket for $60.

Why? You know what happens to a rich Lambo owner when they owe the state 20 bucks? They hire their courier to speed to the post office at 60mph to deliver the check.

No, it's proportional, hence just.

Depends on implementation. The one I'm familiar with asks for time (e.g. x * daily income). That seems totally fair, since we all have roughly the same amount of days to spend in a life. Jail & co is balanced based on the same principle, but harder to store & exchange, thus bad for minor infraction.

If they are going to use minor violations of the law as a pretext for revenue collection, they should call it what it is: kleptocracy.

If those places are dying out, it's probably best to let them turn into ghost towns because they have succumbed to corruption as a way of life.

I think Kleptocracy would only apply if the folks in charge are funneling funds to themselves.

If it is just what funds the government, that isn't a kleptocracy. Bad policy maybe, but not kleptocracy.

If that municipal or county government is operated by unionized public workers, including police, then the revenue collection is going primarily to pay that union, who in turn fund politicians who continue their revenue collection policies to pay their members. It's capture, so in effect, kleptocracy.

Under your description all government that pays someone(s) would qualify.

That's not what kleptocracy means.

>is going primarily to pay that union,

I don't think that is accurate.

The article even specifies that several towns earmark fine revenue specifically and exclusively for use by the police department:

> Georgia, for example, levies about a dozen fees, and they’re used to pay for a state police motorcycle unit, a brain and spinal injury trust fund, and a police supplemental retirement fund.

And the other cases where the money for fines paid in cash just disappeared:

> A Louisiana state audit last year found that some cash payments for citations in Fenton were never deposited in the village’s bank account and alleged improper compensation to city officials.

These are just the direct ways in which revenue from fines are funneled into the pocketbooks of those writing the citations. It doesn't even look into the more tradition mechanics of kleptocrats, where government funds are directly funneled to businesses owned by politicians.

I don't think given examples of questionable behavior means it's all "kleptocracy".

The article does a good job describing the tax policies that influence heavy reliance on fines and etc, that's not kleptocracy, that's just bad policy with bad results.

Let's call it something else then: road piracy.

Could start calling them highwaymen.

These towns don't provide many services to the residents (this is covered in TFA). They're basically just paying their own salaries with the money.

The folks in charge get paid by the government and the amount the government is able to pay is highly dependent on the amount of funding it gets.

Small town government is student council with armed sheriffs.

In the majority of these jurisdictions, the local government is not actually doing useful work towards a flourishing community, or perhaps to be fair, they aren't doing any useful work that couldn't be done more fairly and effectively at the state level.

>they aren't doing any useful work that couldn't be done more fairly and effectively at the state level.

Or equally fairly and effectively without having it officially orchestrated by the government.

I feel like that standard would quickly result in any government that pays anyone called a kleptocracy.


>The folks in charge get paid by the government and the amount the government is able to pay is highly dependent on the amount of funding it gets.

Doesn't that apply to all government where someone is paid?

> If they are going to use minor violations of the law as a pretext for revenue collection, they should call it what it is: kleptocracy.


Isn't any fine revenue collection?

Yes, but not all fines are for minor violations, and not all fines are a pretext for revenue collection.

The first thing revenue collection funds is revenue collection. Then possibly more revenue collection. Asset forfeiture efforts dry up substantially when the money is returned to the general fund instead of the capturing agencies. Just imagine if they returned the revenue to the people.

"Just imagine if they returned the revenue to the people."

Arguably that idea is what lead to the current situation in some cases....

As the article notes state legislatures cut local government funding, they limit how they can gather funds, probabbly under the idea that they're returning revenue to the people ... so the local government gathers funds the only way they can find it. And here we are.

> so the local government gathers funds the only way they can find it.

Because the local government is a bureaucracy, and the first motivation of a bureaucracy is the same as with any organism, self-preservation.

Rather than elections for sheriff and alderman, etc. there should be referenda every couple of years to dissolve the jurisdiction.

They could elect people who can choose to do as you describe.

Perhaps the locals don't want to?

> If they are going to use minor violations of the law as a pretext for revenue collection, they should call it what it is: kleptocracy.

Fancy word, there, son. 'round here we call it Dixie.

There are a few small towns in Minnesota where you will see an officer posted up right where the highway turns from 65mph to 45mph through town. They will be there almost all day, without fail.

I don't think it's a coincidence that their cruisers are all brand new. It's obviously a source of income more than anything.

There aren't any Minnesota towns on the map in the article so it must not be more than 10%, presumably.

It is interesting to see some towns that are famous in my local area for it:

Morrison, CO (45.3%). 150,000 drivers pass through it daily, with a population of 431. It's hard to argue with as they stop people if they're going 15 MPH over the limit. [1] I think people here just get used to the lack of enforcement of the other cities.

Mountain View, CO is only 0.09 sq mi (0.24 km2), population ~528. Sandwiched between Denver and the next suburb over, writes more tickets combined than Denver, Boulder, and Aurora. A lot of the tickets are for things like seatbelts and cracked windshields [2].

[1] https://www.speedtrap.org/colorado/morrison/ Quote: "They got me going 41 in a 25. $135 ticket. They are making a killing by gouging people for no reason so beware!" LOL

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mountain_View,_Colorado#Police...

I'm not sure if 285 technically runs through Morrison, but there are lots of tickets issued right there because it is essentially a highway but has a low speed limit. They could raise the speed limit by 10-20mph and it would probably still be safe. There are also several elevation changes that make it easier for a traffic officer to hide.

Weird that Mountain View is in the mix. Maybe it's just a statistical anomaly because the "town" is tiny and is actually in a metro area and may include a portion I-70.

If you search for either town in Google Maps, it draws their boundaries, which will be useful for this thread.

Morrison looks like a gerrymander: it runs along roads, and has some other parts that are unused pieces of land, and doesn't include private property that is being used even though it is next to it. It really does look like it was designed to cover roads that have nothing to do with the actual downtown part of Morrison.

Mountain View is between W 41st Ave and W 44th Ave (which looks like a fairly busy road). I just noticed they are only at 5.3% in the report though. [1] That's not even 10% (and a lot more than Morrison's 45%.)

Since you mentioned I-70, on the other hand there is Lakeside: Mountain View actually borders another tiny "town" (population 8), Lakeside, which consists of a lake, shopping center, and amusement park, and I-70 and related on/off-ramps. According to the map in the report [1], Lakeside is on the map but at 13.5% revenue from tickets.

[1] https://www.governing.com/topics/finance/fine-fee-revenues-s...

Yes, but thanks to this report you can now prove it and see how prevalent this practice is.

Read https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Rome,_Ohio if you'd like to see how extreme this kind of corruption can get. It could be described as a military occupation of part of the United States by a rogue nation.

Along those lines:

Lyons CO, a town along the highway from Denver to Rocky Mountain National Park has a section where the speed limit drops from 55 to 25 within about 1/4th mile. Cops sit there all day long just fining tourists.

Kingman AZ is essentially a speed trap with more steps.

Just about any village on I-50 in Nevada does the speed step down too, typically from 75 to 35, as the highway goes through the village. The cops are typically not very well hidden either. As is similar to the Rome OH situation, if you are within sight, you are getting a fine. Top Gear ran into this issue in Season 12, episode 2 [0] and Clarkson was quite irrate on screen. Fortunately, I-80 is a much better and faster way across Nevada.

[0] https://www.topgear.com/show/series-12/episode-2

There's lots of towns very well-known for being speed traps in my part of the Midwest. My hometown in particular has a police force of approximately 8 full-time officers for a population of 5,000. There's absolutely no good reason to have so many cops for a population of that size, especially when the crime statistics are very low for non-traffic infractions. The only traffic ticket I've gotten in 30+ years was at 12:30 AM coming home from a concert in a larger city, going 5 MPH over the speed limit there. I'm sure he was pissed off that he couldn't also write me up for a DUI.

The U.S. has 284 police officers per 100,000 people.(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_and_dependen...) That would translate to ~14 police officers for a town of your size.

Ok, sure, but that's not really a useful metric for a low population density area. Crime in my area is very low, violent crime especially, there's simply no need for that many police - they'd be doing nothing most of the time, if not for running speed traps and harassing bored teenagers.

The police force doesn’t need to be spread evenly, especially in areas with little crime.

A lot of rural towns are at least as dependent on highway patrol and sheriffs.

>8 full-time officers for a population of 5,000. There's absolutely no good reason to have so many cops for a population of that size

Doesn't that mean 2 officers on duty at any one time? There is ~160 hours in a week, so that is 4 40 hour blocks. Having two police active at any time seems reasonable (probably with them staggered so that when one swaps the other is only half way through their shift).

8 officers is barely enough for 24-hour police coverage, so that's a good reason.

"Actions taken by the legislature in Louisiana and in other states have likely compounded the issue. According to Census survey data, in states with the most fine-reliant jurisdictions, localities incurred notably steeper state funding cuts than elsewhere nationally over the decade. Many of those same states have also enacted numerous revenue restrictions for cities over the years. In fact, according to research from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, in states that implemented caps or limits on local property taxes starting in the late 1970s, fees and charges substantially increased as a share of all revenues that local governments raised."

I think this speaks to the larger issue, a structural problem about how revenues are gathered.

State legislators restrict or eliminate funding and cut off any other sources of funding, so they gather funds the only way they can providing a perverse incentive.

There's way too much focus on "cut taxes wherever" without much thought as to good governance and the results of such cuts.

It's not as though cities and towns are using fine dollars to educate children and feed the homeless. They're not. They're using it to pay more police salaries so they can write more tickets. They're simply using the money to further their own existence. God forbid the towns be forced to find an alternate way to pay for, reduce or cut a service in the face of shrinking revenues.

I think the article adequately describes how difficult it is to "find an alternative" particularly when the state legislature is cutting off those paths.

Alternative for what purpose? These towns and counties already have basically nil for services.

Presumably for whatever services the town might want to offer. Police, fire, water, sewer, etc. I think we can all imagine what those things might be from city to city.

Believe it or not small towns do offer some services, it might not be much compared to others, but little is still something that needs to be funded.

I can understand a bit of the rural vs urban issues in the US when I see a lot of arguments here that because they offer very little (perhaps just compared to an outsider's point of view) ... that means they shouldn't have any?

Meanwhile as the article notes state legislatures cut off funding from the state / limit their ability to gather funds by other means.

Missouri lawmakers responded by lowering, to 20 percent, a cap on the proportion of general operating revenues that could come from minor traffic violations.

Previously the limit was 30% and before that it was 35%. That higher limit was imposed to deal with Macks Creek, MO, a village on a US highway in a valley between two steep hills. That village was coated in brake dust, until the legislature decided it doesn't really need police. I'm pleased at the progress we're making in this state.

That was the town with one cop per 50 residents, wasn't it?

I'm not sure if they ever had four cops? They did have two patrol cars, though, so it could have made sense. They didn't want anyone to sneak through at 46 MPH.

I've always thought society would be better off if fines and money confiscated by police was redistributed as tax relief rather than going to the government or police department doing the confiscation.

As it stands it only encourages abuse.

That only incentivizes the sheriff to order his police to shake down more to passers-through to get reelected by touting how much he reduces the tax load.

Fines must be completely decoupled from the people levying them. They should be required to, say, give these funds to a blind trust which donates them to charities which don’t operate anywhere within 500 miles of the dining jurisdiction.

No one involved in levying the fine (or deciding what is fined or how large a fine is) can benefit if you want to remove the conflict of interest. Perhaps the best thing to do is stick it all in a fund for helping victims of crimes when the criminal doesn't have enough funds to cover damages to the person (but even that isn't great).

Shred the money that gets collected. This helps everyone by increasing the value of the dollar by an extremely tiny amount.

Budget shortfalls from various forms of "tax relief" (exemptions, no income tax, etc.) is one of the main factors the article suggests leads municipalities to collect operating income using these alternative fees and fines.

It is expensive to operate a bureaucracy or a public school district.

I like the idea of going towards the states general road fund. Fines are used to improve the roads.

I grew up on the outer edge of the metro Atlanta area, and I remember a lot of people joking about this small mill town and how they made all their money off traffic tickets. Eventually, I'd here a ton of notes about these type of towns everywhere I lived.

The financialization of modern life puts extra pressure on areas without much economic activity. Self-government enables local needs to be discussed and addressed while serving as a job program for more than just the few elected positions; it raises its own revenues but also generates new costs. Locally-generated revenue has to supplement scant subsidies from the state.

Within this template, a fortunate jurisdiction can collect fines and fees from out-of-towners without significantly making locals' lives miserable. An unfortunate jurisdiction harasses locals too. This is not unlike how corporations take advantage of laws, but with the added abuse potential of being able to make up laws too.

The state stepping in and forcing a disincorporation of the local jurisdiction isn't necessarily a good answer. It stops the immediate symptom of near-abuse or actual abuse of power but doesn't provide a framework to substitute economic activity. Far better is limiting the level to which local governments have control over decisions of policing, but such measures are unpopular. The status quo largely continues, with investigations opened into a few high-profile cases of abuse of power, and the rest can keep doing what they do for now.

This is especially annoying because for every dollar they collect, you can end up paying your insurance company 4+ times as much because they now think you're a terrible driver for getting these minor BS citations.

If you get caught for speeding in Michigan, the Golden rule is to always appeal the ticket. Unless you've been excessively reckless they'll typically knock it down to "impeding traffic" which carries a slightly higher fine (depending on your speed) but is not a moving violation and doesn't get reported to insurance. [1]

> Impeding traffic is a civil infraction punishable by a fine. It is also considered a non-moving violation that does not add any points to the offender's Michigan driving record. Non-moving violations are not reported to the Michigan Secretary of State and are less likely to be detected by automobile insurance companies as a basis to raise rates. Municipal attorneys will frequently offer to reduce speeding tickets to an impeding traffic charge which avoids points on the driver's record but usually results in a bigger fine.

It's a pure money making scheme.

[1] https://www.monroecountylawyers.com/blog/2018/12/what-is-imp...

“Money making scheme” is putting it mildly. If they're offering to not tell your insurance company in exchange for paying a larger fine, I would describe that as “extortion.”

And especially favors the rich as they have the time and money to pay the government upfront, while the poor get to deal with higher insurance premiums.

>Others prop up their budgets using traffic cameras, parking citations or code enforcement violations.

I saw my town make over $1,200 within a split second the other night.

I was stopped waiting at a red light, as cars were passing in front of me.

The light turned yellow, then red, then not even what seemed like a nanosecond after it might have turned red... 3 cars entered the intersection and the light flashed 3 times.

$400, $800, $1,200... all within less than a second, for an infraction so minor that even a police cruiser sitting in my exact same position would have probably sloughed off as being "close enough".

Not to mention, these cameras probably cost orders of magnitude less than a human police officer and a dedicated cruiser.

All I am getting at is, from a business standpoint, it's obvious why these are so popular with poor municipalities.

Once again, the rich get richer, and the poor get kicked on their way home from their 3rd job with a $400 fine for being a nanosecond later than an ambiguously timed light decided they should have been.

This is not going to change unless federal legislation forces it to.

Government is "sticky". War taxes stick around long after the end of the war, and city bureaucracies stick around long after a city declines.

Nobody wants to accept that maybe a town of 5-20k people don't need 20-100 man police forces, and a far lower level of public services in general.

Nobody wants to admit they have to lower their standards of living in the face of adversity; instead we double-down on reproducing (or improving on) the standard of living of our forebears and thereby immiserate ourselves with the debts (or oppression in this case) needed to square that circle.

Even the most economically irrelevant areas of rural america have paved roads these days when they could simply have stuck with gravel, etc. In many ways we are trying to exceed the prior standard of living (progress!) all the while forgetting that the economic base of most of these places has either not improved or significantly worsened.

We all increase our standards of living at our own peril; one must save and capitalize first (which is actively punished by low interest rate policy). Taking this as a given, should we have expected any other outcome?

I always felt like punitive fines and fees, tickets, etc, should be de facto given out to a third party, unaffiliated charity. Got a ticket for not picking up after your dog? Money goes to an animal protection group.

Of course, even WITH the economic incentive a lot of these things get little to no attention/enforcement, so without it will be even less. Sigh. At least ridiculously random road rules would go away?

3rd party contributions may then incentivize the formation of special interest charity lobbies pushing for more fines unfortunately.

Heh, dealing with the intersection of money and people is hard.

Lets just use the death penalty for everything. Less money involved then.

Oh damn, the people making injection drugs will lobby too... I just can't win.

Fines should not exist. Anything that gets punished by a fine is basically codeword for 'you can break that law if you're rich'. The most spectacular example being Facebook's stock rising after being fined for a few billions because it was pocket money for them.

Alternatively, if you really want to punish minor things, fines could be dependent on your income.

If and when autonomous cars become a reality, I wonder what will small towns do to find new punitive fines and fees...

This is unfortunately and notoriously true. It is how relatively impoverished towns without a real tax base generate enough revenue to provide basic services. These fines are usually selectively applied to people from outside the area, so there is little adverse consequence for the townspeople. It works this way throughout the rural US, though easily avoided if you diligently pay attention to and comply with the signage when in those kinds of areas.

Insufficient local tax base for small towns is a problem throughout the world, with many diverse solutions. This is the evolved and ad hoc US flavored version in the absence of a top-down official solution.

Perhaps changing location in title from "the country" to "the U.S." would help international readers; some of whom have told me they feel annoyed because they need some acknowledgement that other countries exist.

Same here South Africa, it has been said that for many small towns their main income is from speeding fines. Quite irritating if you go on a road trip and come back to a couple of speeding fines in the post

A degree of this could be solved just by saying proceeds from fines, fees, and forfeiture go to the state or federal government.

Obviously that might encourage those governments too do such fines, but a. they already do that, and b. people have historically been better at limiting large scale abuse like this that is possible in each separate small town scattered around the state/country.

Also it might provide a more cost effective way to sue in response to disparate enforcement (one suit vs many).

The town in East Tennessee is Bluff City and it’s notorious for its speed traps, cameras, and lazy law enforcement. It was so bad someone who got a ticket bought their domain when it expired https://abcnews.go.com/Technology/man-buys-police-dept-websi...

Hah. The last traffic fine I paid was for a highway speed-limit sign (65 to 30mph) more than a mile from, and around a curve from, a Midwest whistle-stop that a few hundred called home. A lot of these flat-plain potholes probably survived only because their leaders had the connections to get the highway routed through them.

( Akroid's 1991 film 'Nothing But Trouble' sums up my feelings.)

I'm genuinely surprised not to see any Rhode Island cities/towns on this. Speed cameras have shown up like a plague in Providence in the past year and are expected to spread throughout the state.


This article is talking about fines as a proportion of overall revenue. In the Northeast they can fine the crap out of anything that moves and taxes revenues are still high enough (because there's so much expensive property, high incomes and other taxable stuff combined with decently high tax rates) that the fines are still not a significant percent of revenue.

Valid, and I don't know what the total fines are, but if the speed cameras alone netted 3.2 million last year it seems quite plausible that fines are accounting for 10% or more if I'm reading this report correctly http://www.providenceri.gov/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Accou...

But you know, I'm not an accountant

Two places to always drive the speedlimit:

* On US Military Bases

* Near small towns

was a good article in NYT Magazine about this, almost the same kind of piece "How Cities Make Money by Fining the Poor" https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/08/magazine/cities-fine-poor...

immediately looks for Linndale, OH as a former Cleveland resident

Yup, there it is. 96.2% of general funds from fines. $24,126 per adult resident. That's what happens when you have a tiny town with a small segment of an Interstate.

When towns can't raise taxes to cover basic services or the revenue they do have dries up as the population shrink, there aren't a lot of options left. Transient taxes on hotel rooms or traffic fines are pretty much it.

Another worrying aspect is that many small towns contract with third-party companies to handle ticket processing, often tacking on extra surcharges (above and beyond a cc processing fee) to pay via credit card online.

All government relies on your money in some form or other.

Traffic fines just de-select those who don't travel by motor vehicle. And, to some degree, the fees are self-selected. (You choose to speed or not.)

NY shouldn't be overlooked here. Driving from CT to Ohio, I'll see 5x as many cops in the short part of the trip in NY than I will on the entire rest of the trip.

This was a major plot point in Disney's Cars.

Every time on the 395 between Bishop and Mammoth.

That's CHP, not town cops or country sheriff except when driving through Bishop or getting off 395 to drive into Mammoth.

Aren't all fines 'punitive'? Isn't that the point?

Waldo, Fl until the "Waldo Bill".

It deters Investors

And this funding is disproportionately paid for by the poor:


The use of bureaucracy to funnel wealth from poor to rich also operates in the same way for private institutions such as banks. Graeber goes into this modern tendency towards bureaucratic rule in detail in his book "Utopia of Rules"

I really don't understand what was so unpalatable to other users about this comment... The link I shared goes into the same details about Ferguson as the top comment and the notion that it is poorer people that bear the largest burden is also stated in the featured article. Is it the idea that these same issues also arise in the private sector that rubs people the wrong way?

Guidelines | FAQ | Support | API | Security | Lists | Bookmarklet | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact