JAMES: Not Even COVID-19 Can Slow Louisiana Speed Traps

Editor’s Note: a guest post by Daryl James of the Institute for Justice.

COVID-19 lockdowns took a toll on working-class families in the early months of the pandemic, as businesses closed and people lost jobs. But Louisiana towns and villages that rely on traffic enforcement for the bulk of their revenue did just fine.

Despite a stay-at-home order designed to reduce traffic, newly available audits show that many Louisiana municipalities increased their hauls from fines and fees during the fiscal year that ended on June 30, 2020. Tullos, a small LaSalle Parish town on U.S. Route 165, completed a record year for revenue as the pandemic spread.

Pine Prairie reported numbers through December, providing a more complete look at police activity during the pandemic. The village south of Alexandria increased its annual haul from $485,000 in 2019 to $489,000 in 2020, accounting for 52% of its budget.

Among all Louisiana municipalities that routinely receive more than half their revenue from fines and fees, only Clayton on the Mississippi River and Florien on the Toledo Bend Reservoir showed significant drops in police activity.

Overall, at least 20 Louisiana towns and villages funded more than half of their budgets from fines and fees during fiscal 2020. The number could climb to as high as 24 municipalities when additional audits become available.

Georgetown, located on U.S. Route 165 between Alexandria and Monroe, led the state with 93% of its budget coming from fines and fees—almost entirely from traffic enforcement. As a benchmark, the national average for fines and fees is about 2% of municipal revenue, and watchdog groups flag anything above 10% as excessive.

The monster numbers point to widespread reliance on fines and fees as a substitute for taxation—a regressive approach to municipal management that disproportionately hurts low-income families and people of color. A 2020 report from the Institute for Justice calls the practice “taxation by citation,” which occurs when local governments issue tickets to raise revenue rather than to protect the public.

Fenton, a Southwest Louisiana community that pulled in 88% of its revenue from fines and fees in fiscal 2020, has pursued taxation by citation as a financial strategy for more than 15 years. Auditors recommended aggressive traffic enforcement for the village in 2005, mentioning nothing about public safety. The context was strictly business.

Fines and fees more than tripled during the next two years, climbing from $38,000 to $120,000. Revenue from fines and fees more than tripled again to $388,000 by 2011, following the widening of U.S. Route 165 from two lanes to five lanes through the center of the village in 2009.

As traffic counts increased, fines and fees more than tripled again to $1.2 million between 2011 and 2017. Public records suggest that Fenton will reach similar levels in 2021. Working through a winter storm disaster, three officers cranked out more than 900 citations in January and February 2021, representing about $215,000 in fines and fees.

If the two-month sampling of police activity is predictive, Fenton would pull in about $1.2 million for the fifth year in a row, representing about $3,000 per resident. The numbers are staggering. Small towns everywhere run speed traps, but rarely with the same intensity that motorists find in Fenton and other parts of Louisiana.

One reason for the zeal might be desperation. Many municipalities have low property taxes, low sales taxes and low state support. So they commercialize their police departments to survive.

Louisiana has additional problems built into its court system. Motorists who dispute their tickets in many towns and villages do not go before a neutral judge. Instead, they go to mayor’s court, where the mayor who needs revenue is also the judge who decides whether defendants should pay. In some municipalities, the mayor simultaneously serves as prosecutor and judge.

The conflicts of interest are obvious, which is why no other state except Ohio allows mayor’s courts to exist. Even in Ohio, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a rebuke in a 1972 case called Ward v. Village of Monroeville. The 7-2 majority ruled that executive responsibilities for village finances made the mayor partisan, depriving motorists of due process.

Somehow, Louisiana policymakers do not think the ruling applies to them. COVID-19 shows how determined they are to keep the fines and fees flowing. The pandemic shut down restaurants, bars, casinos, gyms and salons. Organizers even canceled the 2020 New Orleans St. Joseph’s Day Parade, not to mention Mardi Gras in 2021.

Nearly everything closed. But Louisiana speed traps stayed open for business.

COVID-19 Speed Traps

At least 20 Louisiana towns and villages received more than half their revenue from fines and fees during the fiscal year that ended on June 30, 2020. Numbers show the percent of total revenue from fines and fees, and the directional change from the previous fiscal year.

Municipality % Change
Georgetown 93
Fenton 88
Henderson 86
Dodson 84
Robeline 83
Reeves 81
Tullos 80
Baskin 74
Creola 71
Port Vincent 70
McNary 70
Forest Hill 70
Fisher 69
Merryville 65
Gilbert 60
Rosepine 55
Pollock* 55
Port Barre* 54
Pine Prairie* 52
Bonita 52
*Port Barre fiscal year ended Sept. 30, 2020.
Pine Prairie and Pollock reported data for calendar 2020.
Source: Louisiana Legislative Auditor
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