The purpose of criminal courts is to punish, deter, and rehabilitate, not to raise revenue for bigger government. That shouldn’t be a controversial concept to anyone who values limited government. But to many two-bit politicians in St. Louis County, Mo. it’s a major threat.
Because of the way they use their courts, some cities more closely resemble organize troll guilds than legitimate governments. Rather than fund government from a stable tax base, they extract exorbitant traffic fines and fees from residents and passers-through.
Evidence of abuse is rampant in St. Louis. Nearly one in four St. Louis County municipalities relies on traffic fines for more than 20 percent of their annual budgets.
Some cities even base their budgets on predicted dramatic increases in traffic fines. For example, politicians in Dellwood recently predicted a nearly 40 percent increase in traffic fines. In Ferguson, the city council refrained from predict-the-future budgeting, but traffic fine revenue increased by nearly 50 percent from 2011 to 2012.
Edmundson, Mo. is one of the worst offenders. Located next to the St. Louis airport, Edmundson has a population of 834 and total land area of just 0.26 square miles. That tiny space, however, includes approximately one-quarter of a mile of Interstate 70 and Edmundson’s politicians know an opportunity when they see one. They use I-70 to fund 35 percent of their budget, extracting over half a million dollars a year in traffic fines or $671 per resident.
Business leaders and community activists in St. Louis have coalesced to support legislation limiting the ability of municipalities to fund government through traffic fines.
On Wednesday, the Missouri House Committee on Criminal and Civil Procedures heard legislation I sponsored to prohibit local politicians from using traffic fines to fund more than 10 percent of their budgets. Anything in excess of 10 percent would be sent to schools instead.
That’s just too much for Edmundson Mayor John Gwaltney, who told the committee his municipality only enforced traffic laws for the right reasons, and his city was “not dependent” on fines and fees to operate. He then claimed HB 332 was “stepping into lawlessness, which leads to anarchy.”
Gwaltney’s comments suggest he never bothered to read the bill, which does not limit any police officer’s ability to enforce the law. Officers remain free to write tickets for any offense. The bill, instead, merely limits government power to raise revenue via their criminal justice system.
Worse, Mayor Gwaltney’s willful ignorance of the bill is simply another installment in his troubled history with the truth. He may claim not to run his city like an organized troll guild, but his own words betray him.
Last spring, Gwaltney perceived a problem with his police force. In his mind, they weren’t writing enough tickets. So, before the public paid attention, Gwaltney decided to fix this problem.
Last spring, Gwaltney sent a memo home with the paychecks of every Edmundson police officer. Gwaltney said he had “noticed a marked downturn in traffic and other tickets,” then made it clear that officers were expected to start writing more tickets. “I wish to take this opportunity to remind you,” Gwaltney wrote, “that the tickets that you write do add to the revenue on which the P.D. budget is established and will directly affect pay adjustments at budget time.”
He continued, “As budget time approaches, please make a self-evaluation of your work habits and motivations, then make the changes that you see will be fair to yourself and the city.”
When questioned about his memo, Gwaltney admitted that he judged officers not by the quality of their work but the quantity of tickets they wrote. “How do you quantify whether an officer is doing his job without counting tickets?,” he asked committee members on multiple occasions.
While Gwaltney and other municipal officials fight the bill, the St. Louis Police Officer’s Association has endorsed the bill. That’s because, as Gwaltney’s illustrates, police officers are not the problem. Instead, the problem is small-time politicians like Mayor Gwaltney who pressure good police officers with ticket quotas.
In Missouri and elsewhere, conservatives ought to curb out of control local governments that finance their operations on the backs of residents and unlucky passers-by. Taxation by citation is wrong, no matter where you live.
If public safety is their chief interest, small-town pols will operate police departments divorced from ticket quotas or issues of revenue generation. If law enforcement is a priority to them, they will find a way to fund their budget with something other than traffic tickets, just as the overwhelming majority of municipalities and the country do.
Even 10 percent of revenue derived from traffic fines is too much. The most appropriate number would be zero. Instead, the money should be sent to schools, just like they are in Missouri counties.
Jay Barnes is an attorney and state legislator from Jefferson City, Mo. A conservative Republican, Jay previously worked as a speechwriter for former Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt and as a reporter for Newsmax magazine. His opinion pieces have been published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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