Tuesday, June 19, 2012

An Imperfect World: Dallas officials see municipal fines as untapped cash cow

City staff in Dallas criticized municipal court judges in a presentation to the city council last week for not using their offices to maximize revenue from Class C misdemeanor cases. Their biggest beef: That "average revenue per case last fiscal year was far lower than in other cities — $41.49, as compared with $60.26 in Austin and $104.34 in Irving." ("Dallas officials roll out plan to fix municipal courts," June 19) Apparently this year's "warrant roundup" was the final straw. The story describes:
a city “warrant roundup” this year, which, at least from a financial perspective, went dismally. The city arrested 893 people in the roundup. According to the briefing, judges granted 96 percent of the defendants “time served” rather than holding them to fines.

“If a person has ten tickets and is in jail one day, all tickets are credited with the one day,” the briefing says.

The roundup’s defendants had about $538,000 worth of tickets. But once in front of judges, they were fined only $20,360, the briefing says. Of that, only $2,187 has been collected.

Meanwhile, the city spent $71,000 to make the arrests.
The city manager claims those numbers raise "questions as to the value of the warrant roundup effort, or any effort by police, to arrest those ignoring city notices," but I couldn't disagree more. Arrest and a night in jail is adequate punishment for most Class C scofflaws, by any public safety measure. To me, the concerns raised by the city manager speak more to the transformation of enforcement of petty municipal statutes in recent years from an issue of public order to a mere cash cow. The purpose of criminal law is not to turn a profit, and these judges' job is not to maximize revenue, but to the city manager they're not doing their job if they don't wring every last dime from defendants. That mentality both misunderstands and deforms the justice system.

Notably, the New York Times on Sunday had a feature about municipal courts in New York City, which there are called "summons courts," declaring that "New York is a multiracial city, but judging from the faces in cramped courtrooms, one would think that whites scarcely ever commit the petty offenses that lead to the more than 500,000 summonses issued in the city every year." One of the judges was quoted saying only black and Latino people were ever charged in his court with drinking alcohol in public. “As hard as I try,” he wrote, “I cannot recall ever arraigning a white defendant for such a violation.” Grits has not spent any time in Dallas municipal courts, but I'll bet the racial makeup of those who cycle through there isn't much different than described in NYC.

The Dallas News story cited a BS calculation that "Last fiscal year, the city collected only about 25 percent of the $43 million that would have been realized under a perfect-world scenario for city officials — a world in which everyone who took care of their tickets did so by simply paying up." But that's absurd! For starters, it assumes everyone is guilty, and that due process rights are an annoyance we'd be better off ignoring "in a perfect world." In New York, the Times reported, the majority of those who show up for court "will have their cases dismissed because the charge is not substantiated or because the judge thinks it is nonsense." The Dallas News story offered no judges' assessment about why cases are dismissed or fines reduced (they called the administrative judge for comment but he didn't call back before deadline), instead letting the city manager portray the jurists as soft on crime. Sounds to me like a cheap shot.

MORE: From the Dallas News City Hall Blog. AND MORE: Chief judge blasts back at briefing on the court system.


ckikerintulia said...

I have a redneck fat farmer unlicensed lawyer friend, Grits knows who he is, who claims, bsed on SCOTUS ruling in Tate vs. Short, that it is unconstitutional to incarcerate anyone for fine only offenses. A lot of people make fun of my fat farmer friend, but he's usually right!

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Charles, I'm not a lawyer, either, but Tate v. Short was in 1971. The Supreme Court in early 2001 (Atwater v. Lago Vista) said it WAS constitutional to arrest for fine-only offenses, but IMO the dissent (which agreed with your farmer friend) was much more persuasive and in line with Tate v. Short. The Texas Lege passed a statute in 2001 to overturn Atwater in Texas but Gov. Perry vetoed it. He also vetoed a weaker version in 2003 that would have made departments state in written policies WHEN officers could arrest for fine-only offenses. (As perhaps you can tell, I've been all the way around this block!)

That said, the warrant roundups are for failure to appear in response to a ticket/summons, which even under the Atwater dissent would still have been allowed. To me, the wisdom of the warrant roundup is more a policy question than a constitutional one.

Tell Gary "hello" for me.

Anonymous said...

Note also the bit about:

Pretrial conferences: The recommendation is to require defendants requesting trial to attend a pretrial conference with prosecutors. Deals for deferred disposition or reduced fines might be possible only at such a meeting. The idea is to increase the risk for defendants opting for trial in the hope that an officer won’t show up.

The official city recommendation is to increase the risk for a citizen exercising his constitutional right to trial.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Exactly, 11:16. Apparently the Dallas city manager thinks due process is something the city shouldn't have to worry about in a "perfect world."

Lee said...

The purpose here is once again fundraising and again the state has failed miserably. The judicial branch of government is supposed to be independent of the executive and not a funding recourse. What stood out to me was the $500,000.00 in outstanding warrants, they spend $70,000 (of our tax dollars) and net in only $20,000. OMG & WTF???

Those employed by the state must be dirt stupid. I think I mentioned something to this effect the last time grits brought up the warrant roundup subject.

Lets save money next year and not do the roundup. It benefits noone.

Lee said...

An dhat is Cowboy Rop'em n Shoot'em Texus tuff on crim.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Lee, keep in mind that once they're arrested they get money credit for time-served. As Rev. Charles pointed out, these are theoretically fine-only offenses.

Robert Langham said...

Tyler City Council member Jason Wright plainly states that Municipla court in Tyler is to be considered an ATM for the City. PERIOD. They don't even pretend anymore.

Alan said...

I just watched the briefing, and I think you're jumping to inaccurate conclusions. He told Council members that the major problem is that we invest tax money to get a safer, cleaner city. Because of multiple failures (he spread the blame around), we're not getting what we pay for. Instead, we're getting a culture of disrespect for the law. He talked about revenue in terms of revenue per citation compared to other cities, and in terms of collection methods--both as measures of systemic efficiency. He never made a pitch that accepting his changes would bring more bucks into their council district coffers.

The fact is you don't need pro-prosecution judicial bias to get convictions in traffic court. Cops may arrest the wrong rape suspect, but when they pull over the guy who ran a stop sign, how much reasonable doubt can there be?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Alan, the Dallas News article was published before the briefing so that's all I had to go on when this was written. That said, if you think a frantic search for revenue isn't what's driving this, IMO you've got another think coming.

Lee said...

Alan, I personally have a great amount of disrespect and disgust for the law.

My obligation that I account for what I believe is right and wrong. our obligation should not be to the law but the the concept of JUSTICE. The law and the state permit some very henious and sick things that do not serve the interests of justice.

You will not that in many trials the judge's loyalty is not to justice (the difference between right and wrong) but rather to the enacted legal statutes and the jury will hold to what they believe is right and wrong (justice)

At the end of our lives we will have to account for our own actions and what is right and wrong. What political party in a given jurisdiction or state legislature will not be relevant. You know what justice (and the difference between right and wrong is), so follow that and not the law.

Anonymous said...

You SHOULD have your risk increased by going to trial - the risk of conviction for the offense. There is NO risk of conviction if a person opts for deferred or a driving safety course at a pre-trial hearing, unless of course that person fails to comply... I don't understand the, "Heads I win Tails You lose" mentality of people concerning traffic tickets and going to court.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

2:00 writes, "I don't understand the, 'Heads I win Tails You lose' mentality of people concerning traffic tickets and going to court."

Keep in mind not all Class Cs by a longshot are traffic tickets. (E.g., public intoxication is a biggie.) But to answer your question, IMO the public's direspect for the system you describe stems from the same sentiment attributed to judges in the Times article, that often "the charge is not substantiated or ... is nonsense."

quash said...

An essential element of due process is notice of the charges against you, which in municipal court means the complaint. Local rules for Dallas say that the defendant is entitled to a copy of his complaint (not to mention the constitution) but they are NEVER given out in advance of trial. Nor are they available online. The chief prosecutor tried that pre-trial proceeding once before, tied up a valuable trial court to do it, and got slapped down when defense attorneys refused to plea out their client without seeing the complaint.

Anonymous said...

Revenue generation, pure and simple. Now how do we fix it as being fined and jailed is the only (worst case) scenario available? So many problems and not enough resolutions. We jail officers for taking money from people roadside. How do you jail a government?

Daniel Simon said...


Every time a Cop writes a ticket in Texas he has made an "ARREST".

You can confirm this by reading Chapter 543 of the Transportation Code entitled "Arrest and Charging Procedures".

The ticket is "release from arrest on written promise to appear"...a sort or roadside personal recognizance bond.

Actually, cops are now allowed to "cite and release" on certain Class B and Class A Misdemeanors as well, with some restrictions.

However, there are rules on the citation process, and the most important is 543.006 (a+b). This section requires a Time to appear be SPECIFIED....and a place be specified BEFORE A MAGISTRATE. No "promise to plea" is authorized.

Our city of Austin citations not only do not have a specific time to appear, nor a specific place to appear...but also seek to illegally extract a promise to plea..."in order to enter a plea of guilty, not guilty or nolo contendre to the charges".

There is so much fraud in this it is impossible to put it all in a short post...just suffice to say it is designed to trick people out of exercising their rights.

For example; the ticket is only a notice/promise to appear...and no real charge has been filed until there is a sworn complaint.

they only bother to generate complaints for those pressured into pleading "not guilty" for those who plead guilty or nolo contendre they just pocket the money and never formally charge the person!

There are actually some statutes that allow this...but the person never had to plea at all...just "appear".

If there is no formal charge, and the person stands their ground and does not pleas without a complaint...they have fulfilled the promise to appear and the ticket is dead legally.

However, trust the greedy Courts and Prosecutors to break the law...and still attempt to drag the person into their little sheep shearing assembly line, by hook or by crook.

Daniel Simon

Anonymous said...

Wow. Simon,
do you know any "defendants", (not charged), who have actually done that? Is there a large number of people who know this?