Most municipalities allow law or code enforcement officers to cite residents for violations that may result in fines. Unfortunately, some use this power to generate revenue rather than solely to protect public safety and property. Frequently, this burden falls unequally on lower-income residents.
“Taxation by citation” threatens trust in local governments, which can have disastrous consequences. Following the 2014 death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the U.S. Department of Justice found the city targeted minorities to raise revenue. This led to general “distrust and resentment” of government that ultimately led to the unrest that caused personal injuries and $5 million in property damage.
Abusing fines and fees for revenue is widespread—a Governing report identified nearly 600 jurisdictions where fines and fees accounted for more than 10% of general-fund revenues. Moreover, such abuse distorts law enforcement priorities and exploits the least fortunate, risking stoking the flames of civil unrest.
Curbing taxation by citation starts by collecting data. Well-informed legislators are better equipped to develop the most efficient policies.
What can state legislators do?
The Institute for Justice offers the Fines and Fees Reporting Act, a bill that allows policymakers to better understand the levying and collection of fines and fees. This model creates a reporting system that provides a full picture of every assessed fine and fee and the attendant circumstances. This information, which is reported annually to legislators and made publicly available, allows the state to track of all fines and fees activity.
The model also gives legislators and the public access to neatly compiled state court information. Under the Act, each court in a state will submit caseload data, which will enable analysis of trends over time in the types of cases, courts and final dispositions that generate revenue.