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Lawsuit shows how traffic tickets and other municipal fines may skew justice

Speed cameras monitor traffic in front of a Maryland school. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
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A recent lawsuit filed against a suburb of Atlanta offers a new look at how routine traffic tickets and code violations can be used unfairly by some municipalities to raise government revenue.

The Institute for Justice, a libertarian organization based in Arlington, Va., sued the city of Doraville last month, alleging that its excessive reliance on fines and fees from traffic stops and other municipal infractions had skewed its justice system.

In one case, a Doraville woman was convicted and sentenced to probation for a cracked driveway and backyard weeds that were too high; in another, a driver was charged $215 because she switched from one lane to another despite making the move safely after realizing that she was in the wrong place, the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit, along with a related report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, raises broader questions about U.S. municipalities, including three in Maryland, that generate a high percentage of their revenue from fines and fees.

In particular, the institute called out Doraville for its practice of budgeting for — and thereby expecting — a certain amount of revenue from fines and fees. The institute says such arrangements create hidden incentives for city officials and the local judiciary to target, charge and convict people, sometimes for trivial violations.

Joshua House, a staff attorney with the institute, said Doraville’s built-in conflicts of interest deprive people of their constitutional right to due process.

“[Y]ou do not have due process if the judge in front of you has a financial bias against you from the minute you walk in,” House said in an interview. “If this were just extra money coming in, that’d be an entirely different question. But instead what you have is a town that would be in bankruptcy if everybody decided to obey the law.”

Doraville Mayor Donna Pittman didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

D.C. Council member asks for review of high earning traffic cameras

Towns that function as speed traps have been around since automobiles became the dominant mode of transportation. But the issue of systemic financial incentives and overzealous law enforcement received national attention after the August 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

The U.S. Justice Department found that the shooting was justified, but the department also documented systemic racial discrimination and abuse by law enforcement that effectively transformed local police into tax collectors. In Ferguson (population 21,000), fines and fees contributed more than 23 percent of the St. Louis suburb’s revenue in 2015.

Other researchers have found similar conditions in financially strapped jurisdictions with narrow tax bases, including some with large populations of African Americans and Hispanics or low-income residents who bear the brunt of policing for profit.

The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, following up on Justice’s report on Ferguson, examined the way municipalities can rely on fines and fees to the detriment of their citizens. In a 2017 report, the commission found 17 U.S. municipalities that received a larger share of their revenue from fines and fees than Ferguson.

Among them was Riverdale Park, Md. (population 6,956). The Prince George’s County town derived 15.7 percent of its revenue from fines and fees in 2012, compared with 12.9 percent in Ferguson. Two other Maryland municipalities ranked among the top 25: College Park, which derived 13.6 percent of revenue from fines and fees, and Laurel, with 11.8 percent.

Yet the story is also more complex than the numbers suggest, according to the mayors of those Maryland towns. In all three municipalities, large amounts of income were generated by automated traffic devices or fees having to do with optional services, such as processing passports or offering fingerprinting.

Speed cameras coming to College Park

College Park Mayor Patrick L. Wojahn said his city was one of the first in Maryland to adopt speed cameras as way to improve pedestrian safety because Route 1 runs past the University of Maryland’s main campus, where there are large numbers of pedestrians and bicyclists.

“We saw and still see speed camera enforcement as an important tool for pedestrian safety, and we’re saving lives,” Wojahn said.

College Park (population 30,113) stepped up its use of cameras in 2014 after three pedestrians were killed in a six-month period. The city now operates eight fixed cameras and one mobile device. The money from them, as per state law, must be plowed back into safety improvements, such as through infrastructure changes or additional policing.

Wojahn said the cameras generated a large amount of amount money at first — $3.6 million in 2011, the year before the amount cited by the Civil Rights commission — but those sums have steadily declined as motorists adjusted and slowed down. The haul from speed cameras still amounts to more than 13 percent of all fines and fees collected in fiscal 2018, city officials said.

Given that enforcement is automated, it’s hard to say that bias creeps into the way tickets are distributed, Wojahn said.

I don’t think there’s anything more fair in terms of enforcement than an automated speed camera program, which doesn’t look at who you’re pulling over or who you’re giving a ticket to,” Wojahn said. 

In neighboring Riverdale Park, Mayor Alan K. Thompson said a similar dynamic has occurred, as the town used automated speed enforcement to improve safety in the East-West Highway/Route 410 corridor.

“And it’s been working, because the revenue have been steadily dropping since the program was instituted,” Thompson said. “We actually have seen reductions in traffic crashes and things like that.”

Thompson, citing current budget figures, estimated that the city will receive about $400,000 in speed camera revenue next year, which would be about the same as this year. Other fines and fees are less than $50,000 in a budget of nearly $7 million a year.

Laurel Mayor Craig A. Moe said his city’s relatively high proportion of fees and fines revenue comes not just from speed cameras  but also from providing a high volume of services such a fingerprinting and handling passport applications.

In fiscal 2017, Laurel (population 25,115) received about $3.7 million in gross speed camera revenue, or approximately 11 percent of total municipal revenue. But after processing expenses were taken out, the city netted $1.8 million, or nearly 6 percent of total revenue.

No one likes to see people ordered to pay money that they can ill afford to pay, College Park Mayor Wojahn said.

But I think the answer for that is: If you don’t want to pay a fine, you drive the speed limit,” Wojahn said. “It’s not hard to avoid going 12 miles over the speed limit. We’ve had people killed in College Park because of unsafe drivers. It’s a simple matter of following the traffic laws. 

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