The Excessive Fining of America

Local governments are known to pursue revenue opportunities by any means necessary even if it means misrepresenting their own laws. In Grosse Ile, Michigan, fine-happy bureaucrats have doled out numerous threats and tickets to a resident. Why? He parked is RV in the wrong place on his property.

Unfortunately for Thomas Buckhart, the township’s request to move his RV would mean violating a slew of other zoning laws. Township officials unsurprisingly use loosely defined legalese as justification for the tickets. Buckhart isn’t backing down and has filed a lawsuit.

Buckhart, however, isn’t the only one subjected to State aggression. Citizens of the “land of the free” are being fined by government more than ever.

State and local pension funds are becoming major fiscal liabilities thanks to bureaucratic mismanagement. In order to fill the gap, governments issue excessive fines for every possible “infraction”. Evidence suggests that government is not very good at collecting fines, nor are they a net positive for tax payers. Nonetheless, it has become a favorite.

To use a case study, New York City collected $661.9 million in fines for 2004, which is over $200 million more than 2002. Despite this lucrative revenue stream, it actually costs New Yorkers more than $1 in enforcement for every $1 collected. When excluding parking tickets, it costs the city $2.09 for every $1 collected. The NYC Independent Budget Office concluded that “in all areas except parking tickets, the amount spent on enforcement exceeds the revenue collected”.

Even more attractive, however, are state government’s traffic citation schemes, which they say is for “safety”. According to Esurance, 41 million people receive speeding tickets every year, which accounts for $6 billion in revenue. A closer analysis of these numbers reveal some daunting truths.

Local municipalities often live and die from speeding traps. Randolph, MO (population 47) collected more than 75% of their budget through speeding tickets. A small town in Florida actually shut down its police department. The department had set unlawful tickets quotas, made deceitful court appearances, and practiced unethical evidence storage. When your budget lives on fines, this kind of behavior becomes the norm.

Traffic fines are especially favored because they supposedly fill budget gaps. For example, the mayor of Nashville proposed a budget to be funded largely by a 33 percent increase in citation revenue. Research from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis suggests the mayor’s plan may not result in the desired outcome. The study concluded that “traffic ticket revenue supplements a low percentage of revenue losses and budgetary increases”. In other words, increasing traffic citations only fulfill a small portion of fiscal deficits, or about $0.37 to the $1.

Whenever government fines someone, the implication is “pay up or go to jail”. In Alabama, a 17 year-old girl was fined $41 for not wearing a seatbelt. Unfortunately, she is in desperate poverty and barely makes enough to eat. She was placed on probation for missing the payment date and, as a result, racked up thousands of dollars in extra court fees. Since the county is tight on funds, they contract debt collection to a private firm. She now faces a decision: pay the exorbitant fines or go to jail. Of course, seatbelt laws are to ensure your safety, or so they tell us.

Local courts often fine people thousands of dollars in fees which they cannot pay back. Many of these people, due to their low income, are then sent to debtor’s prison. According to the ACLU, people are increasingly being imprisoned for failure to pay court fines, and many of them are low-income minorities. Of course, sending someone to prison for not paying a fine is more costly than the fine is worth.

The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution explicitly prohibits excessive fines, but cities abuse a loophole created by a court decision. In the case of Milwaukee Pub Co. v. Burleson, the court ruled that the Eighth Amendment was “intended to limit only those fines directly imposed by and payable to the government”. When a city contracts their debt collection to a private firm, an overdue debt is no longer held by the government, but rather a private firm. Thus, the excessive fines clause no longer applies. The unintended consequence has been a revival of debtors’ prisons that are now largely populated low-income citizens.

Government often claims to “help the poor”. In the pursuit of generating revenue, they have consequentially ruined countless lives. Instead of addressing the root cause of fiscal problems, they continue to look for new ways to extort peaceful citizens. In typical bureaucrat fashion, the “solution” to the problem only makes it worse.


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