Arlington, Va.—Across the nation, cities and their court systems impose major fines and fees for minor traffic and municipal code violations—often using the revenue to fund municipal and court operations. A new Institute for Justice (IJ) study examines such “taxation by citation” in three Georgia cities, finding that when cities use their enforcement powers more to raise revenue than to protect the public, they risk violating people’s rights and undermining trust in police, courts and other local government institutions.
The IJ study, “The Price of Taxation by Citation: Case Studies of Three Georgia Cities That Rely Heavily on Fines and Fees,” investigates three metro Atlanta cities—Morrow, Riverdale and Clarkston—that derive large proportions of their revenues from fines and fees. IJ drew on data from public records, a survey of residents, photo and video records, resident interviews and direct observation of the three communities and their courts.
On average over five years, Morrow, Riverdale and Clarkston generated between 14% and 25% of revenues from fines and fees, far outpacing similarly sized cities in the state. And many citations that generated this revenue were for violations that presented little threat to the public, suggesting revenue concerns outstripped concerns for public safety.
During difficult economic times, the three cities leaned especially hard on fines and fees, which peaked as a share of total revenue in 2012 before falling as the economy improved. But even after the recession, fines and fees remained the cities’ second largest source of revenue.
The study indicates that several factors combine to result in taxation by citation. Like many cities in Georgia, Morrow, Riverdale and Clarkston all have their own courts, which they fund. Those courts churn through more citations than courts in similarly sized cities, returning guilty verdicts in 97% of the cases observed and producing a steady stream of revenue for municipal coffers. The cities also have few legal provisions preventing them from using code enforcement to raise revenue—or from violating people’s rights.
Morrow, Riverdale and Clarkston are not alone. Nationwide, 94 municipalities with populations of more than 5,000 join Morrow, Riverdale and Clarkston in reaping double-digit percentages of their revenues from fines and fees, and 12 of them are in Georgia.
“Taken together, these results suggest that taxation by citation may occur where cities perceive a need for revenue and face few obstacles to using code enforcement to pursue it,” said Dr. Dick Carpenter, a director of strategic research at IJ and the study’s lead author. “The results also suggest that once in effect, the mechanisms necessary for taxation by citation—such as supremely efficient court procedures—may become business as usual, ensuring fines and fees remain a reliable source of municipal revenue.”
The study also finds city residents with recent citations reported lower levels of trust in city government than those without, suggesting taxation by citation is likely short sighted. What cities may gain in revenue, they may lose in community trust and cooperation.
“Taxation by citation puts government revenue above individual rights, with the predictable result that cited communities trust government less,” said IJ Senior Attorney Bill Maurer, who is lead attorney on several IJ challenges to municipal taxation by citation schemes. “Cities should find other ways of shoring up their finances and use their code enforcement powers only to protect the public—and then only with meaningful safeguards for citizens’ rights in place.”
The Institute for Justice, which litigates property rights cases nationwide, has challenged unconstitutional fines and fees across the country. In February, IJ won a victory before the U.S. Supreme Court, in which the Court held that the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of excessive fines applies to state governments, not just the federal government. And last year, IJ secured a consent decree in Pagedale, Missouri, in which the city agreed to widespread reforms of its unconstitutional ticketing scheme. IJ is currently suing the city of Chicago over its abusive car impound system.
A high-resolution video news release with IJ Senior Research Analyst Jennifer McDonald and IJ Attorney Joshua House is available at: https://www.dropbox.com/s/30g2izi09yybxo7/taxation-by-citation-vnr-institute-for-justice.mp4?dl=0.