Tax Collection: Law Enforcement’s New Role?



You know the feeling – the feeling you get when you return to your parked car and see the dreaded neon-colored slip of paper tucked under your windshield-wiper.

The following analysis was prompted by that feeling. One of SCPC’s policy analysts received a ticket from the Folly Beach Department of Public Safety. The reason? “Tires in roadway.” A close examination revealed that one of the tires was, indeed, on the street. It seemed highly unlikely, however, that the offending tire posed any danger to “public safety,” and so that raised the question: Are such tickets – tickets issued for manifestly insignificant “offenses” – less about “public safety” than revenue generation?

As it turns out, serious studies have addressed this question, and the answer is: Yes.

Thomas Garrett and Gary Wagner argue this point in their working paper Red Ink in the Rearview Mirror: Local Fiscal Conditions and the Issuance of Traffic Tickets. Using North Carolina county data over a 14-year period, they found a “statistically significant increase in number of traffic tickets issued in the year immediately following a decline in local government revenue” and found no evidence of fewer tickets being issued when government revenue increased.

Garrett and Wagner cite many other studies supporting the claim that local traffic enforcement policies are more about political interests than public safety; it’s a lot easier, politically, to issue more parking and speeding tickets than to raise taxes. For example, there is little evidence to suggest that red light cameras actually reduce collisions, and yet more and more municipalities are installing them. Garrett and Wagner also find evidence that state-mandated vehicle inspections fail to reduce vehicle fatalities or injuries; their popularity would seem to have more to do with the fact that road safety advocates like them while they aren’t pricey enough to aggravate most economic conservatives.


They go on to cite a Public Choice Journal study finding that “when law enforcement agencies are permitted to retain assets seized from drug arrests, the fraction of drug arrests to total arrests increases by roughly 20 percent.” Put bluntly: If local governments will boost their revenue by conducting more raids on the homes of (mostly non-violent) drug offenders, they will certainly do so by issuing more tickets in the name of “public safety.”

Nationwide examples

There are countless examples from across the country showing that local government officials see traffic tickets as revenue generators. Garrett and Wagner point to several instances: A Milwaukee city official stated that “traffic tickets provide much needed revenue” after a decrease in the number of traffic tickets issued; Houston city officials predicted a traffic ticket increase to offset revenue loss; a D.C. mayor requested a continuation of the city’s traffic camera program and referred to the city’s “urgent need” to collect revenue from the program; and – in perhaps the most egregious example – in 2006 the mayor of Nashville actually included a 33 percent increase in traffic ticket revenue in his proposed budget.

More examples we found include: Mayor Ann Dassing of Caldwell Borough, New Jersey touted the success of the town’s new “E-Ticket” system, which she stated was being implemented to “increase residents’ quality of life and recapture ‘lost revenue.’” Police chiefs are admitting the role of revenue as well. The Police Officers Association of Michigan union president stated, “When elected officials say, ‘We need more money,’ they can’t look to the Department of Public Works to raise revenues, so where do they find it? Police departments … A lot of police chiefs will tell you the goal is to have nobody speeding through their community, but heaven forbid if it should actually happen – they’d be out of money.” Even more telling of the evolution of the role of law enforcement is found in a statement from Police Chief Michael Reaves of Utica, Michigan: “When I first stated in this job 30 years ago, police work was never about revenue enhancement, but if you’re a chief now, you have to look at whether your department produces revenues … That’s just the reality nowadays.”

Not all police leaders seem as concerned with the new role of law enforcement, however. In an article for Police Chief magazine, Commander Paul LaCommare of West Covina, California put forth a list of possible new revenue streams that could be initiated by law enforcement. Here are just a few:

  • Fine increases by 50 percent
  • 911 fee per use
  • State and court fees for all convicted felons returning to community
  • Allowing agency name to be used for advertisement and branding
  • Resident fee similar to a utility tax
  • Tax on all alcohol or ammunition sold in city
  • Public safety fees on all new development in the city
Is it any different in S.C.?

South Carolina towns and cities seem to be following the same pattern. The evidence is easy to find – and it’s not just Folly Beach’s $30 fine for parking with a “tire in roadway.” Here are just some of the fines we found:

  • Summerville:  $237.50 for driving left of center, failure to dim lights, failure to use “due care,” improper backing, improper starting, or muffler and/or window tint violations.
  • Greenville: Non-specific fines are listed for parking facing traffic, backing into spaces, and parking out of the lines.
  • Columbia: $15 for parking on wrong side of street, $7 for parking “improperly,” $12 for re-feeding the parking meter, and $25 for keys left in an unattended vehicle.

To be fair, these cities should be commended for actually having these violations posted online directly from their city websites; other cities in South Carolina make them nearly impossible to find.

Not all local South Carolina officials are quick to admit that revenues are a driving factor to increased ticketing. Despite the fact that General Fund revenues fell in Beaufort from 2007 to 2008 and the number of traffic tickets issued went up over 36 percent, Police Chief Matt Clancy stated, “We’re not conducting overly aggressive traffic enforcement. The city’s revenues have absolutely nothing to do with traffic enforcement.”  In 2008 when Charleston city officials were planning to increase parking ticket fines by 75 percent, Mayor Joe Riley said it wasn’t about collecting more money but instead encouraging people to use parking garages – even though the proposed increase would raise up to $350,000 more in revenue. Mayor Gary Hodges of Ridgeland defended the use of speed enforcement cameras in 2010 (which mail violators a speeding ticket) despite the former Attorney General ruling against the use of these cameras in 2006. The use of these cameras essentially doubled the number of tickets handed out in Ridgeland – at $133 apiece.

In some South Carolina towns, especially some of the smaller ones, it’s nearly impossible to argue that they have no financial incentive to ticketing. For example, traffic tickets in Jamestown (population of 97 in 2009) accounted for 62 percent of the town’s 2009 budget. Similarly, traffic fines accounted for 64 percent of Cottageville’s budget (population 700).

State law and local ticket revenues

The South Carolina legislature has taken steps to protect drivers’ civil liberties and their wallets against some forms of municipal revenue-generating policing. In 2010, the legislature unanimously passed a bill subsequently signed by Gov. Mark Sanford that banned the use of red light cameras (which many studies have shown to actually increase the number of accidents) and speed cameras. In an even more direct response to Ridgeland’s use of speed cameras, Gov. Nikki Haley signed into law a bill that would prohibit cities from using cameras to send traffic tickets to drivers and mandates that officers must give the citation in person at the time of the offense.


Unfortunately, aside from these two legislative actions, that’s just about where the legislature’s concern for taxpayers’ wallets ends. Like municipalities, the South Carolina Department of Public Safety depends heavily on fines and fees. In 2011, Other Funds (fines and fees) accounted for over 28 percent of DPS’s budget. The agency’s 2011 Fines and Fees Report shows that among several sources of fines revenue, it collected $4.4 million in DMV late vehicle registration fees, $1.5 million worth of seized and forfeited real or personal property, $2.1 million in fines for new South Carolina residents caught driving without obtaining a state license and registration after 30 days, $3 million in fines for overweight axels, and over $900,000 in DUI fines.

Ironically, during the same period legislators were passing these aforementioned camera bans, a bill was introduced (which attracted national attention) that would have forced the state’s General Fund budget to depend partially on speeding tickets. Specifically: For being pulled over for going under ten miles per hour over the speed limit, a driver would have been giving the choice of paying a $25 fine including point violations or paying a $150 with no point violation. Half of the $150 fines would go toward the state’s General Fund, and the other half would have been retained by the local governmental body that issued the ticket. While the proponents of this bill (which never passed) may have thought it beneficial to give drivers another choice as to which “poison” to choose from, such a law would have made both local and state governments more reliant on fine revenue than they already are – which in turn would have given these governments more incentive to raise those fines during economic slowdowns.

Time for a name change

The policy of using traffic, parking, and other similar tickets as revenue generators promotes unfair, excessive targeting of citizens by law enforcement agents, infringes on our civil liberties, allows governments’ budgets and power to grow out of control, promotes reliance on unpredictable revenue sources, and redistributes money from the private market to the government. But if that policy is going to remain in force for the foreseeable future – and there’s no reason to think it won’t – municipalities ought at least to be honest and call these tickets what they are: taxes. Honesty would also dictate that revenue collection be included among law enforcement agencies’ official responsibilities, and that local revenue department be amalgamated with their police counterparts. The principle of “truth in advertising,” after all, should apply to the public sector, too.

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