When city governments spend more money than they take in, officials often search for ways to generate revenue. One increasingly common source of money is traffic tickets. And research shows police officers issue more traffic tickets when cities are financially in a deficit.
But police represent only one aspect of this revenue-generating system. Judges and their courts also use traffic citations to generate money for the cities that employ them.
As scholars of public finance, we study how cities raise money to pay for their operations. Our new research indicates that judges in cities facing red ink often use their positions to maximize revenue from traffic tickets. They can do this by adding financial penalties to unpaid tickets. Judges often use the extra penalties to encourage people to pay.
The process of generating dollars through traffic tickets, though, begins with the police.
Traffic violations are common. Whether drivers fail to signal a turn or drive a few miles per hour above the speed limit, it is not difficult for police to find someone who violated a traffic law. Officers have the discretion to pick and choose when to ticket and can adjust the number of tickets they issue based on factors that are not related to whether someone broke the law.
Those factors include the race of the driver or the racial makeup of the neighborhood the officers are patrolling. Usually, this means African American drivers and drivers in neighborhoods with more African American residents are ticketed at higher rates than other people.
Another factor affecting ticketing, but unrelated to whether drivers are breaking traffic laws, is the budgetary situation of the city.
One high-profile example of how a city’s use of traffic tickets can be a problem is Ferguson, Missouri. According to a 2015 Department of Justice report, “Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the city’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs.” And those practices affected African Americans disproportionately. According to that report, African Americans made up 67% of the city’s population at the time, but they were the subjects of 85% of traffic stops, 90% of the tickets, 92% of the warrants police issued and 96% of the arrests.
Ferguson was neither the first nor the only local government to replenish its coffers through traffic tickets. In the years since that federal report, numerous studies have shown that police and other city personnel increase the volume of traffic tickets they issue based on budgetary need.