May 18, 2020

IJ’s battle against abusive fines and fees has never been more important. With the COVID-19 shutdown, cities and towns are likely to find themselves strapped for cash in the coming months. If the last recession is any indication, many will see “taxation by citation” as an easy fix. Thanks to IJ strategic research, however, we have a formidable new weapon with which to fight back when that happens: a database. Yes, a database. Let’s back up a little.

Municipal taxation by citation is often thought of as a local issue, but a broad range of state laws may encourage this behavior. To get a better sense of how big this problem may be, we scoured the laws of all 50 states and identified 52 relevant legal factors across seven categories. We then scored the states’ laws on those factors and ranked the states overall and on each category. The rankings reflect how likely state laws may be to encourage municipal fines and fees abuse.

Released in April with the report Municipal Fines and Fees: A 50-State Survey of State Laws, the resulting database is the first comprehensive accounting of state laws relating to municipal fines and fees. Reformers and researchers can use the database to explore similarities and differences among the states and pinpoint laws or groupings of laws that may be promoting—or preempting—taxation by citation.

Take, for example, the two states that rank best and worst overall, North Carolina and Georgia. The most important factor driving their ranks is municipal courts. Georgia municipalities can operate their own courts to process citations, while North Carolina municipalities cannot.

Present in 28 states, municipal courts are often susceptible to municipal pressure to impose fines. Not only that, but, as we’ve seen in our taxation-by-citation cases in Doraville, Georgia, and elsewhere, they open the door to other practices that may facilitate abuse. Such factors are simply non-issues in states without municipal courts.

Beyond municipal courts, the data point to three other issues of major concern. First, very few states restrain municipalities’ financial incentive to pursue fines and fees. Only two—Kentucky and Missouri—cap municipal fines and fees revenue, and no state requires municipalities to send all municipal court revenue to a non-municipal fund.

Second, while 35 states have laws in line with U.S. Supreme Court precedent barring courts from incarcerating people only because they cannot pay fines and fees, 15 fail to provide this or other critical safeguards to help poor people stay out of jail for victimless infractions.

Finally, few states protect people from driver’s license suspensions when they cannot afford to pay traffic fines and fees—though reformers are starting to persuade legislatures to abandon this harsh means of trying to compel payment.

Too many states give municipalities ample incentive and means to abuse fines and fees. This is an ever-present concern but a particularly pressing one in times like these. Thankfully, IJ’s research points the way to reform, and we will leverage that information through our litigation and advocacy until municipalities across the country stop treating their residents like ATMs.

Mindy Menjou is IJ’s research editor.

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