“Taxation by citation” is the excessive imposition of traffic tickets and fines in order to raise revenue, in excess of what is needed for safety. The economic rationale for fines is to both deter harmful actions and to compensate society for the danger. The starting point for optimal fines is the question, if we could catch all those who violate the law and fine them, how much should the optimal fine be, i.e. the fine amount at which the cost of the fine equals the damage caused by one more occurrence of misbehavior. Since the police cannot catch all the violators, the optimal fine divides the certainty fine by the probability of being caught. While this is not easy to measure, it is easy to know when the fines are excessive: when drivers fear the police.

After Proposition 13 was passed by the voters of California, sharply reducing government revenues from property taxes, traffic fines went up to 10 times the previous amounts.

For example, after Proposition 13 was passed by the voters of California, sharply reducing government revenues from property taxes, traffic fines went up to 10 times the previous amounts. Safety concerns had not changed; local governments were making up for lost revenue with high fines for revenue, when the fines had previously been set to promote safety. A 2011 article by John Brennan at lewrockwell.com states that “Running a red light is now $425.00. Not signaling: $140.00. Five miles over the speed limit in a school zone sucks you of $530.0.”

A 2015 article by Teri Sforza in the Orange County Register, “Watchdog: State uses additional fees from traffic tickets to help make ends meet,” shows the tricks that make California fines get so huge. If a driver rolls through a stop sign, the official fine is $35. But a “state penalty assessment” is tacked onto the ticket at $40. The “court operations fee” is another $40. The “conviction assessment fee” equals the fine ($35) and then the “county penalty assessment” is $28. The rolling stop citation has a total cost of $238. The state government cannot even be honest and say the fine is the $238.

An article in allgov.com, “Why a $100 California Traffic Fine Ends up Costing $549,” has a similar story, explaining that “Base fines are set by the California Judicial Council and additional assessments are dictated by the Legislature.”

An Wall Street Journal (7 Aug. 2015) article by Eric Schmitt, a state senator in Missouri, had the heading, “‘Taxation by Citation’ Undermines Trust Between Cops and Citizens.” He wrote that excessive citations and fines “shatters trust” between residents and the police.

Car owners and drivers become prey for police predators. When a police car is in view, the driver feels fear rather than the comfort of protection. There is fear that, like a spider bearing down on a trapped fly, one will become a victim, not only having to pay the citation tax, but having to waste time in traffic school or having the bear the cost of higher insurance payments.

Car owners and drivers become prey for police predators. When a police car is in view, the driver feels fear rather than the comfort of protection. There is fear that, like a spider bearing down on a trapped fly, one will become a victim, not only having to pay the citation tax, but having to waste time in traffic school or having the bear the cost of higher insurance payments.

Many cities enforce the citation tax with quotas. The police administrations require the officers to issue some amount of citations, or lose their jobs. Sometimes the mayor and city council initiate such policy. Since citations issued on major highways impose the cost on out-of-town travelers, there is a great incentive for cities to impose the citation tax.

Another article revealed that many Colorado towns get 30 to 90 percent of their revenue from traffic citations.

Another article, “Citation Nation: Taxation through tickets?” by Rocky Mountain PBS, revealed that many Colorado towns get 30 to 90 percent of their revenue from traffic citations.

One way to constrain this tax greed is with legislation that caps the revenue municipalities can obtain from traffic fines. Such was introduced in Missouri by senator Schmitt. Going further, U.S. Representative Emanuel Cleaver, II of Missouri introduced a bill, The Fair Justice Act, to ban criminal and traffic law enforcement activities motivated by revenue raising purposes. Rep. Cleaver stated that citations for revenue have “disproportionately affected minority and low-income communities.” The Fair Justice Act would make it a civil rights violation, punishable by up to five years in prison, to enforce criminal or traffic laws solely to raise revenue.

The Fair Justice Act would make it a civil rights violation, punishable by up to five years in prison, to enforce criminal or traffic laws solely to raise revenue.

“Speed traps” have been used in many cities, where the speed limit sign is hidden or hard to spot, and drivers get fined for driving at ordinary speeds. But now many states, such as California, have become a big trap for all sorts of traffic infractions.

Only a tax reform that replaces taxes on productive work with taxes on government subsidies will provide the revenue that eliminates the financial incentive for taxation by citation. In plain language, public revenue from land rent should replace punitive revenue, whether from excessive traffic fines or taxes imposed on labor and goods.

The remedy of legal limits on the revenue from traffic fines is needed, but that is not enough. Only a tax reform that replaces taxes on productive work with taxes on government subsidies will provide the revenue that eliminates the financial incentive for taxation by citation. In plain language, public revenue from land rent should replace punitive revenue, whether from excessive traffic fines or taxes imposed on labor and goods. Traffic enforcement will be optimal when drivers are happy rather than fearful when they see the traffic police on the road.

© Text Copyright Fred Foldvary, Ph.D. rights reserved.
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