Are Municipal Fines and Fees Tools of Stategraft?

Most, if not all, incorporated communities in the United States have municipal and traffic codes that delineate the powers and duties of local governments or provide rules and regulations for public activity in the community. The primary stated purpose of code enforcement is promoting and protecting public health and safety. Codes are commonly enforced through monetary fines and administrative fees. Recent years have seen growing concern about cities engaging in “taxation by citation”—that is, the use of code enforcement to raise revenue from fines and fees in excess of citations issued solely to protect and advance public safety. A significant focus of the concern is how taxation by citation violates rights in the pursuit of revenue. In this way, taxation by citation seems to illustrate Professor Bernadette Atuahene’s theory of stategraft: state agents transferring property from residents “to the state in violation of the state’s own laws or basic human rights,” often during times of budgetary austerity. But this Essay identifies important features of municipal codes and their enforcement that are not necessarily encompassed by this theory. It suggests how stategraft may be expanded to encompass laws, regulations, and systems that legally—if arguably unconstitutionally—allow or incentivize state actors to exploit their residents for the benefit of the bureaucrat’s budget.

Suggested citation: Carpenter, D. M., Cavanaugh, J., & Gedge, S. (2024). Are municipal fines and fees tools of stategraft? Wisconsin Law Review, 2024(2), 707–728.

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