Friday, March 20, 2015

Pragmatic acquiescence vs. nagging presentiments about roadside ticket collections

Grits remains torn about state Rep. Allen Fletcher's HB 121, which allows drivers with outstanding Class C warrants stopped on the side of the road to pay the officer with a credit or debit card to avoid being taken to jail. The bill was heard Wednesday evening in the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee and left pending. The committee substitute (said Vikrant Reddy of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, testifying in favor of the bill) makes it clear that collections may only occur for cases which have already been adjudicated - cops can't collect fines for tickets they're writing at the same traffic stop.

Part of me is incredibly sympathetic. Certainly it's better for drivers who can afford it if they can pay up, avoid arrest, and go on their way. Grits has a credit card and, if I'm busted for a ticket I forgot to pay, no doubt that'd be preferable. For those who can't pay, they're in the same situation they would be in otherwise. So there's an argument to be made that the outcome is no worse for drivers who can't pay and improves the world for drivers of greater means. In that sense, it's a regressive policy, but at least one that would reduce arrest and incarceration totals overall.

But here's the part that nags at me (and these concerns were touched upon if not fully elaborated by Chris Howe, the lone witness against the bill, on Wednesday night): More than ten percent of Texans at any given time have outstanding arrest warrants, a number that grows over time because of the vicious cycle created by the Driver Responsibility surcharge. That's a lot of folks.

Meanwhile, new law enforcement technology now being deployed by local agencies - specifically, hand-held and vehicle-attached license plate readers - could and IMO will facilitate agencies which deploy that tech using it to have their traffic-enforcement officers cherry pick drivers with outstanding warrants instead of looking for current, real-time traffic violations.

So, if more than ten percent of drivers have outstanding arrest warrants, that's a near-endless sea in which they can fish for roadside revenue generation, diverting focus from traffic safety in the pursuit of the Almighty Dollar. Fletcher's main witness was a former county judge from a 17,000 person county who said 1/5 of their county budget - around $4 million per year - came from traffic fines. Being able to mulct drivers on the side of the road, she imagined, would have boosted their coffers even more.

And I'm sure she's right. The fiscal note says the bill would "have a positive fiscal impact on counties" and "increase the collection rate of court costs and fees for defendants of misdemeanor cases and those issued warrants for capias pro fines," though because "the number of defendants who would choose this option cannot be determined," LBB declined to estimate how much more might be generated.

Grits doesn't suppose maximizing revenue generation is Rep. Fletcher's main intention; he's an ex-cop honestly trying to help people avoid arrest, and it's a decent idea as far as that goes. But changes in technology create possible, unintended consequences which at least merit consideration. Are there enough departments deploying license plate readers to cause concern? Will they use them in such a fashion? How will anyone know? Is it possible to monitor - or better, measure - any shift in on-the-ground police priorities resulting from the new economic incentives created by the bill? ¿Quien sabe?

Maybe I'm thinking too hard about this; HB 121 might be a fine idea and my nagging presentiment may be unjustified. Maybe. Let me know what you think in the comments.


He's Innocent said...


I suspect you are quite correct about this becoming a revenue generating situation with officers assigned the sole duty of picking these folks out and demanding money for freedom.

I can also see an officer using the law to hide behind his true intent of pulling someone over. He/she could use it as "probable cause" whether the unit is equipped with a plate reader or not. What driver gets to inspect any device in a patrol unit to ensure that the officer is truthful?

I am not bashing cops. My spouse is a former LEO. What I *am* bashing is that this will become an extremely slippery slope in which counties will see nothing but dollar signs and ways to augment their coffers. Then they cut other taxes, thus becoming more and more dependent upon that traffic ticket revenue, and then it becomes another Ferguson, MO.

I am not trying to be a racist blowhard here, I'm simply referring to how Ferguson (and many of the other 90 municipalities in the area) have been shown to be critically reliant upon traffic fines as a large source of income for the governing body.

This could easily compared to the situations with Video Visitation costs, commissary in prisons, the phone revenue sharing at TDCJ, and on and on.

The public seems to think it's just another fee that will affect someone else, surely not "me"! Until they lose a job, just cant pay that speeding ticket, it gets behind, then they get arrested, and it's a cluster f%#$k and it picks up speed on the race to the bottom and life is altered forever. Permanent underclass here we come!

The almighty dollar should never, ever be underestimated in its ability to motivate nefarious acts by those in power. I suspect Grits is unable to be rid of his nagging doubts because he knows this is the 8 headed monster that will grow of this seemingly harmless law.

I wish I'd moved from this state 15 years ago. Sigh.....

Anonymous said...

The devil is in the details that are totally absent from the bill. For example, how will Officer Obie in Podunk, Texas, learn that the person he's arrested has an outstanding Class C misdemeanor fine payable to the court or has a a capias pro fine issued for "any offense"? Who is going to pay for and issue the credit/debit card readers to Officer Obie? Under the bill, the court "may" adopt the alternate procedure, but if it is adopted, Officer Obie has the duty to allow the person to utilize the procedure and shall release the person if he uses the procedure. Does Officer Obie's police chief have the authority to elect not to have his officers go along with the court's adopted alternate procedure? If the released person later on disputes the charge with the credit card company. is Officer Obie on the hook for the loss? Etc., etc., ad infinitum.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@ the person who keep posting about arsenic in prison drinking water: N.b., as always, off topic comments will be removed. This is my forum, not yours.

Robert Langham said...

Maybe all traffic violations should be capped at a flat rate- say....20 bucks for whatever it was from speeding to no insurance. Everyone would be able to pay and it would eliminate LEOs and the courts as revenue source.

Soronel Haetir said...


If this bill gets a larger percent of folks with such fines to pay then it would seem to be a dwindling pool under such circumstances. I could well see there being an increase in warrant enforcement at the beginning but then tail off as it becomes more difficult to find people with outstanding warrants (due to their being a smaller portion of the total population).

Atticus said...

Seems wide open to enlarge pretext stops and "consensual" searches that ensue in so many rural PDs and SOs.

Anonymous said...

As some say, the devil is in the details. First off, plate scanner or not, officers run plates all the time and will pull over a car that shows possible warrants. He might not run as many as a dedicated scanner can but those devices break down all the time or the hits they get are delayed enough to be of little use. This is according to several large agencies that no longer use them.

Second, like it or not, lowering fines to $20 would make buying insurance far less likely for many of the people that currently buy it but won't be any more affordable to the truly poor. In my experience though, as long as the defendant continues to show up for court, even if the fines can't be paid, no warrant is issued. It's when they rely on someone else that the issue tends to rear its ugly head.

Third, using Ferguson MI as an example of dependence on traffic revenue is about as silly as using most small towns in Texas. Ferguson gets about 12% of its budget from fines and related fees, not just traffic offenses either. To generate that much, they had to hire more officers and court staff. Guess what the net gain from that budgeting miracle happens to be? Yes, a net LOSS, as are traffic traps in middle Texas that were spanked years ago if the amount of revenue generated surpassed a specific amount of budget. In big cities like Houston or Dallas, the equation is even more skewed against using cops as revenue generators because when all factors are considered, the loss is larger even when they are hired as dedicated task force units. Some small towns manage to break even or keep it close by having unpaid reserve deputies write tickets using TCOLE certified officers who want to keep their license active but it is not the windfall some make it out to be.

Lastly, if a town "may" adopt such a procedure, it is going to work through the details to cover themselves as best they can. This might mean recording a roadside statement limiting charge backs or requiring the defendant to sign some one sided agreement but the towns will get their cuts in most cases, the private company ruining their credit and charging horrendous fees a town could not.

Decide how you want to enforce laws and how to sanction those caught breaking them but there will always be inequities and unintended consequences. Grits points some of them out, commentators point others out, and dare I say those involved in the criminal justice system point them out regularly but we're as likely to all agree on any single measure as we are on what to eat for lunch.

Anonymous said...

To Anonymous 13:00 AM:

It's not "a town" that may adopt the alternate procedure. It's "the court" (the court with jurisdiction over the Class C misdemeanor or "other offense? the bill isn't clear on which court) that may adopt the alternate procedure. If "the court" does adopt the alternate procedure, the bill requires that "any peace officer making an arrest of a defendant" must comply with the procedure adopted by the court.

Anonymous said...

Anon 3/21/2015 01:27:00 PM, aren't you splitting hairs a bit fine? There are still a wealth of questions any thinking person would have regarding the issues raised, the designation not answering a single one of them.

John C. Key MD said...

I hope you are being overly sensitive. I'm sure it will be abused by the criminal justice system--what isn't--but I've had friends arrested for tickets that had even been paid and just not properly recorded by the Court, so it seems that any kind of safety valve for that kind of injustice would be welcome.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

@John Key, of course, once your friends pay twice for the same ticket, recording error or not, you know they'd never get their money back.

Lee said...

This bill only helps those with wealth and means.

Consider that if you have an outstanding warrant you must be considered a dangerous fugitive and immediately arrested, shackled and detained. Upon giving the state money that dangerousness and evil personified disappears.

Do we really want a law contingent upon money passed. I thought justice was the agenda here, or did I come to the wrong state?

Anonymous said...

I see it as progress in the collection of fines. I for one do not see much difference from paying on the side of the road with a credit card and going to the court building itself to pay the fine. Any system that collects fines will be harder on the poor no matter how it is implemented. Apparently those who do not agree with this new approach have never been arrested for a unpaid traffic ticket.

The Phantom Bureaucrat said...

Don't seek a one size fits all answer or you'll go crazy at how the rest of the world ignores you. The truly "poor" always get a rougher ride in life and even though most here would probably wish it wasn't so, any changes for the better to middle class or wealthier folks will eventually trickle down to the rest. I'm with some of you that half a solution is better than no solution at all but don't most places in the state allow a defendant to stay out of jail as long as they continue to make scheduled court appearances?

I said...

Grits - Hope you saw this post by EFF which mentions you: