As I am sitting in a fast food restaurant watching a Kent police officer in one of those unmarked cars pull over a motorist into the parking lot, I tell myself that I am “fortunate” not to have owned an automobile since 2003. I know exactly how that driver who is shaking her head in disbelief is feeling. Of course, you have to alter your time schedule when you don’t have a personal “ride,” and it can be particularly debilitating when you have to be somewhere at a certain time, and you have to depend on a unsympathetic bus schedule to get you there.
I admit I’ve received traffic tickets in the past, but only one for speeding—and that one I convinced a traffic judge to considerably reduce after I pointed out that the 1978 Chevette I was driving at the time shook so bad once I hit 55 mph it left parts on the highway, and that this highway patrol officer—who had specifically targeted me after a prior encounter—was “clocking” his own catch-up speed. Every other time, it was for things like not activating a turn signal “’fast enough,” crossing a “fog line” driving off an exit, or a license plate lamp out. But I knew what these pullovers were really about: The cops saw an “ethnic” person who “likely” had a warrant or was on a terrorist watch list—or did so as an” intimidation” measure, like in ”don’t come back.”
Kent police seem to be very active in their pursuit of allegedly wayward motorists, although from what I can tell, it is for the most part entirely arbitrary. I was walking up James Street when I observed a Kent motorcycle cop sitting in a driveway; several cars passed by in no obviously unusual manner, but the cop drove up behind one of them “randomly” and pulled the motorist over. I’m thinking “What kind of bullshit is this?” No doubt the driver was thinking the same thing. There is, of course, a “method” to this madness; Kent is a Republican town, and the local gentry don’t like the idea of taxes. So instead of increasing municipal revenues from that method, it applies a “hidden” tax called traffic fines—and obviously not all of it goes into the cops’ donut fund.
Many communities around the country have turned to this “hidden” tax to increase revenues in times of “need.” Earlier this month a judge ordered Elmwood Place, a community outside of Cincinnati, to refund $1.8 million in traffic fines. These fines were the result of strategically-placed cameras that the judge called a “scam” that violated the Ohio state constitution. It was also charged that the number of these “surprises” in the mail were inflated because the community had to make-up the difference for having to pay the company that installed the cameras 40 percent of the revenue generated.
In California, the state passed “fixed” fines for different types of traffic violations, no if, ands or buts about it. Vehicle infractions that might have merely warranted a “warning” now requires the payment of a “fix-it” fine, and on your standard everyday ticket a “surcharge” of $35 is applied. If they require you to go to court or attend a “traffic school,” you have to pay a fine for that too.
In large communities and small, filling government coffers is the name of the game. Some small communities in Missouri made ¾ of their revenue from traffic fines—only discovered when the state forced communities to open their “books” when it was decided to actually enforce the 35 percent cap on revenue from traffic citations. In the state of Michigan, the Republican-controlled state house cut revenue sharing funds, leaving many small communities scrambling. In the town of Utica with a population of less than 5,000 the police chief said "When I first started in this job 30 years ago, police work was never about revenue enhancement. But if you're a chief now, you have to look at whether your department produces revenues. That's just the reality nowadays."
According to a story in the Boston Herald, in some local suburbs of Boston every police officer is “urged” to write at least one traffic ticket a day in order to “help” cash-strapped local governments—which, of course, also means their own salaries. In San Diego, shaking down poor “Mexicans” hasn’t been as profitable as expected, so police stated targeting the wealthier residents of La Jolla; $400 fines for “accelerating” up inclines is a favorite money-making scheme.
The Tampa Bay Times published a table showing that purported to demonstrate that the number of traffic tickets and current economic conditions were closely tied. But this was not apparent in all cases. In St. Petersburg, the number of traffic citations continued to increase after the 2008 recession was supposedly over; tickets actually rose by almost 15 percent from 2009 to 2011. However, it also noted a rise in the number of recalcitrant offenders who refused to pay their tickets—thus an actual decrease in revenues from this source.
Naturally, there are other “hidden” costs to traffic fines—increases in insurance costs for drivers, which makes me even more glad that I don’t have to worry about all the other costs associated with owning a vehicle. No better reason to support mass transit, which locally seems to be in trouble financially, again.