In 5 Colorado towns, traffic tickets fill coffers
Rocky Mountain PBS I-News
Her toddler balanced on her hip, Ashlee Lucero approached the Mountain View municipal courthouse earlier this month to ask the presiding judge for community service. She was still unable to pay off a traffic ticket she received last September.
“I was in jail for a whole day,” said Lucero, a 23-year-old single mom from Thornton. “A misunderstanding happens and they take me to court for it and I am still trying to pay for this ticket.”
Mountain View, population 518, is small geographically, stretching just six blocks east to west between Denver and Wheat Ridge, and three blocks north to south. It has 10 police officers who in 2014 wrote 3,624 traffic tickets.
Final records for 2014 were not available, but in 2013 ticket revenues generated $621,099 – more than half of Mountain View’s municipal budget. As a percentage of total, that’s more than 10 times more than most Colorado communities earn from traffic tickets and related court fines.
Rocky Mountain PBS I-News, in collaboration with 9Wants to Know, analyzed 270 municipal budgets in Colorado. Of those, 230 cities and towns reported revenue from traffic tickets. Only 40 municipalities earned more than 4 percent of revenue from citations.
Of those 40 towns, Mountain View had the second highest percentage of revenue from fines, 53 percent in 2013.
Lucero found herself caught in Mountain View traffic court after being stopped on Sept. 11, 2014, and ultimately cited for “defective tires,” though the police report shows she was pulled over for “unreadable temporary tags.”
To date, Lucero has paid $130 toward her ticket. The original citation was for $80.
“From the beginning I owed $175, to $150, to $90,” Lucero said, describing the complicated charges and fees added as she made payments. “They just added on $10, so I’m back at $100. And they are still trying to take money out of my pocket.”
After her original citation, Lucero was fined at least $130 in service fees and court costs. According to her court records, she was given a payment due date in mid-February for $155, after making a $55 payment in November. Though her next payment was not yet due, she was summoned to appear in court in December. When she did not return to court, Mountain View issued a warrant for her arrest.
Lucero was pulled over on the warrant in Adams County on Jan. 22 and spent the day in jail. As a result, she paid a $75 bond, but lost more than the money.
“I lost my job,” Lucero said. “We’re back at my mom and dad’s house now because I lost everything.”
During the April 15 hearing, Judge Mark Pautler did not acknowledge Lucero’s request for community service.
“We haven’t done anything illegal, haven’t done anything wrong,” Mountain View Mayor Jeff Kiddie said of his town’s policing policies. “I don’t look at it as revenue to be perfectly honest with you. I look at it as public safety.”
ALWAYS SOMETHING WRONG
According to traffic ticket data provided to 9Wants to Know and Rocky Mountain PBS I-News, Mountain View’s most common tickets were seat belt violations (847), red light violations (372) and “obstructed view” (274), which can include cracked windshields or anything hanging from a rearview mirror. Defective tire tickets, like Lucero’s, accounted for only seven citations.
“We’re very careful about what tickets we write, and that our officers are doing what they should be doing,” Kiddie said. “I don’t think we’ve done anything other than enforce traffic code and laws that are on the books.”
University of Colorado Denver professor Lonnie Schaible, who works in the School of Public Affairs and studies policing practices, said municipalities relying heavily on traffic tickets for revenue raise several concerns.
“I think most police would tell you that we are in a constant state of non-compliance when it comes to traffic and driving,” Schaible said. “We are almost always doing something that we could be pulled over for.
“I don’t think that traffic tickets are the answer to traffic safety, in general. There’s no real evidence that you might not get the same effect handing out warnings or placing a dummy car,” Schaible said. “It might damage relationships with the public, who respond, ‘OK, well why aren’t the police doing something else?’”
But in Colorado towns where ticket revenue accounts for more than 30 percent of the budget, police and city officials insist the efforts are focused on public safety – and there often isn’t much else for police to do.
“It’s not about making the town money,” said Morrison Police Lt. Anthony Joiner. “We have never once been asked by the town board to bring in more money. It’s safety first. We answer calls, but last year we had under 500 calls for service. So during regular time, the officers are patrolling.”
52 PERCENT OF REVENUE
The U.S. Census reports Morrison’s population at 428, but with 146 of those residents in the Bear Creek Care and Rehabilitation Center. The municipality does border Red Rocks Amphitheater, which attracts huge crowds for concerts. The police force has more than 20 full-time, part-time and reserve officers. The town’s all-black cruisers and SUVs are often seen along U.S. 285 in Turkey Creek Canyon or on SR 470 with multiple arrays of safety lights flashing.
In 2013, fines accounted for 52 percent of the town’s total revenue. Police Chief Rudy Sandoval attributes this to the major highways his department is responsible for monitoring, and said the practices are fair.
“We only write violations that, in my opinion and in most states and most jurisdictions’ opinions, are public safety violations,” Sandoval said.
Morrison’s policy is that police will stop and ticket only drivers exceeding the posted limit by more than 15 miles per hour, said the chief.
“We are considered a speed trap,” Lt. Joiner said, “but you can’t argue 15 miles over.”
In 2013, Morrison made more than $1.15 million from traffic tickets, which more than covered police department costs, $846,000, and municipal court, $148,025.
Some lawmakers and civil rights advocates fear that when a community relies on traffic tickets and fines as a major revenue source it can lead to trouble.
“It’s a problem that has to be stopped,” said U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo.
Cleaver has proposed federal legislation that would allow communities to generate no more than 30 percent of their revenue from fines and court fees. The bill was inspired by the U.S. Department of Justice report on Ferguson, Mo., in the aftermath of the police shooting of Michael Brown last August and widespread unrest, that found police were stopping citizens to increase revenue for the city.
“They were having a situation where they were creating taxation by citation,” the congressman said. “The police department was used as some kind of fundraising group. We can’t allow that to go on.”
Yet one prominent spokesman for Colorado cities and towns said federal legislation is the wrong way to go.
“I just think that for the Congress or for the state Legislature to place limits on that, we would be very resistant to that,” said Sam Mamet, executive director of the Colorado Municipal League.
“This is something that’s in the purview of local control,” Mamet said. “And so in our smaller towns, this could become an important revenue source for them. If the community has said, ‘We want traffic enforcement to be something significant you do in your police department, Chief’ – it should be left to the community.”
All towns and municipalities in Colorado collected a combined $122 million in traffic ticket revenues in 2013. But the 30 percent cap on revenue from fines proposed by Cleaver would affect only five towns in Colorado, as of 2013 data. One town, Campo in far southeast Colorado just north of the Oklahoma border, could cease to exist without traffic ticket revenues.
“Basically, the police department pays for the town,” said Campo police officer Brad Viner, who is currently the only member of the department. Last year he wrote 400 traffic tickets.
“It’s a tough position, but public safety comes first,” Viner said. “It falls under integrity. What am I willing to do. What am I not willing to do. “
Traffic tickets in Campo made up 93 percent of the town’s budget in 2013. That was more than $300,000 for the town of 107 people. The town relies on tickets. Without them, said Mayor Tim Grey, services would be significantly reduced.
“Yes, if we don’t have revenue coming in, and presently, most of our revenue comes in from tickets, then we won’t have the money to pay anyone,” Grey said. “Then at some point we’ll reduce, not to the point of dissolving the town, hopefully, but we’ll have to reduce police force, we’ll have to reduce … everything.”
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