In these Louisiana towns, ticket revenue climbed even as traffic dwindled
Audits reveal that some Louisiana towns saw an increase in ticket revenue even as the pandemic limited traffic on their roads. (Canva image)
Auditors sounded an alarm on May 18, 2020, in Bonita, Louisiana, near the Arkansas state line.
A statewide stay-at-home order was keeping cars off the road, limiting opportunities for the police to issue traffic tickets. The budget implications were serious in Bonita, which receives more than half its revenue from citations.
“The Village relies on fines and forfeitures for revenue, and with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and the decrease of traffic in the area, this could potentially make it harder for the Village to have the available funds needed to continue to provide all the current services,” the auditors write in their financial report.
Essentially, the auditors say the quiet part out loud, suggesting that law enforcement in the village is for producing revenue, rather than protecting the public.
The prediction of a budget crisis came true in many places, including Bonita, which experienced a temporary dip in citation revenue in 2020. But some Louisiana towns and villages actually set records for fines and fees during the pandemic.
Georgetown, a Grant Parish village on U.S. Route 165, reached an all-time high for citation revenue in 2020 and broke its record again the next year. The 2021 haul approached $650,000.
That figure is staggering, considering that Georgetown’s population is just 446. It nearly matched Baton Rouge and exceeded Alexandria, Bossier City, Lake Charles and Monroe. Citation revenue accounted for 93% of the village budget, representing $1,452 per resident. For perspective, the national average for citation revenue is 2% of a municipal budget and $10 per capita.
The pattern is similar in Woodworth, a Rapides Parish town on U.S. Route 165, which set a citation revenue record in 2020 and went even higher in 2021. Baskin, Dodson, Gilbert, McNary, Tickfaw and Tullos also set citation revenue records during the pandemic.
The Institute for Justice, the public interest law firm where I work, has sued municipalities in Alabama, Georgia, Missouri and elsewhere for code enforcement motivated by money, not public safety. Curious about the situation in Louisiana, I toured the state in summer 2021.
Aggressive enforcement was easy to spot. I saw one officer parked at the bottom of a highway overpass in Georgetown, nabbing southbound cars as they came over the crest. An officer in Forest Hill was waiting in the grass off a private driveway, using a bend in the tree line for cover. And an officer in Fenton was nestled in a cluster of trees across the street from a roadside cemetery. Local residents said the police maintain a 24-hour lookout in that spot.
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Governments have legitimate reasons to enforce traffic laws, but they should be driven by justice – not revenue. As the U.S. Department of Justice writes in support of an Institute for Justice lawsuit in Brookside, Alabama: “The Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment bars courts, prosecutors, and police from deciding cases or enforcing laws where their decision-making may be distorted by substantial personal or institutional financial interests.”
Besides fostering a predatory relationship between the police and public, an emphasis on revenue is dangerous. Fenton police officer Shannon Brown died in 2016 when a car collided with his police cruiser during a traffic stop.
Pressure to keep municipal departments solvent also hurts law enforcement morale. Two officers finally resigned and blew the whistle on an informal quota system in Gretna that punished officers who failed to generate sufficient revenue.
Gretna has denied having a quota system, but the city also paid a $70,000 settlement in 2019 to prevent a trial. The deal ensured that no discovery or sworn testimony would occur.
Regardless whether quotas exist, law enforcement still can be tainted. Case law shows that temptations to abuse power arise when government decisions influence the financial wellbeing of entire systems – not just personal bank accounts.
The Justice Department makes this clear in its recent statement. Courts, prosecutors and police “operate under impermissible conflicts when there is ‘a realistic possibility that [their] judgment will be distorted by the prospect of institutional gain as a result of zealous enforcement efforts,’” the statement explains, citing a 1980 U.S. Supreme Court case.
Put simply, places like Bonita simply cannot afford to let off the gas. After hitting a six-year low for fines and forfeiture revenue in 2020, the village bounced back in 2021 with its second-highest take ever.
Not even a global pandemic can keep citation levels down for long when villages and towns see every car as a potential ATM.
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