A study just released from George Mason University’s economics department has finally proven what everyone always sort of just knew. Local law enforcement officials target certain drivers and issue more, and higher dollar fines whenever they can get away with it.
Police officers have long argued that they issue tickets solely in the public interests, but ask almost anyone about the last ticket they received and you’ll often hear of some trivial incident like “failing to stop for 2 complete seconds at a stop sign on a Wednesday night at 2am.”
We hypothesize that police officers, and their monitoring superiors, have incentives divergent from optimal enforcement. Those incentives include the increasing of government revenues. More frequent and larger fines may lead to favorable employee evaluations, and contribute to a larger budget for the police department, higher officer salaries, and improved amenities.
This framework generates hypotheses which we test using a data set containing all speeding traffic stops in Massachusetts for a two month period in 2001.
Computing differences in the likelihood of fines and the amount of fines reveals that when stopped by a police officer, an out of town drivers has a 51 percent likelihood of receiving a fine as opposed to a warning while a local driver has a 30 percent chance of receiving a fine. With respect to the amount of the fine, the average fine for out of town drivers is $123, while it is $118 for local drivers. A t-test reveals that differences are statistically significant.
Using a variety of model specifications, we present evidence that fines for speeding are not solely determined by an objective standard of law enforcement. We show that officers use driversÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ differences in opportunity costs of contesting a fine as a criterion for both whether they issue a speeding ticket or a non-consequential warning, and, in the event of a ticket, the dollar amount the driver must pay. The likelihood and dollar amount of a fine are decreasing functions of local property tax revenue. Further, the likelihood of receiving a speeding fine is higher in towns that are in a fiscal crunch caused by a rejected increase in the property tax limit.
They go on to detail a number of facts:
- Police officers report to a Chief of Police who is appointed by government officials.
- Government officials are elected with the major responsibilities of assessment of taxes and appointment of town officials.
- There is a positive relationship between police budgets and traffic fines.
- Police salaries for officers and sergeants increase with the size of the police budget.
- Police personnel budget increases with fine and forfeiture revenues.
In Massachusetts, where the study was conducted, there are limitations on the revenue municipalities can raise through fees, licenses and permits, but there is no statute or regulation on fines. Furthermore, municipalities retain 50 percent of the revenues collected from traffic fines.
The authors propose the following framework for their study:
Suppose an officer has discretion as to whether to issue a traffic fine or a warning.
- The officerÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s decision to cite and thus issue a fine, as opposed to give the driver a warning, is based on utility maximization.
- A police officer is generally disinclined to issue a ticket because it requires work without immediate personal benefit.
- The Chief, however, is monitoring her work, evaluating her with regards to the number of traffic stops and issued fines, and how many drivers eventually pay their fines (as opposed to having the fine successfully overturned in court).
- Road safety in the officerÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s area of operation enters the officerÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s utility function as well as the superiorÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s performance evaluation.
The amount of work effort associated with a citation issuance depends on the probability that a driver will appeal the ticket to a judge. If the driver appeals the ticket, work effort for the police officer increases, as she is required to attend the proceedings.
Following this line of thought, people who are from out of town are less likely to appeal. Furthermore, since local politicians have an incentive to monitor their appointed police chiefs to ensure that tickets are issued to out-of-towners, as opposed to local voters, well, it’s easy to see that if you are pulled over while out of town you are more likely to receive a ticket.
- Out of towners are up to 28% more likely to get a ticket, and it will be 10% higher than locals for the same infraction.
- Small towns with tight budgets are more likely to raise revenue via ticket issuance.
- These results are consistent with the hypothesis that police officers have incentives to increase fine revenues. In fact I would go further to state that Police absolutely, 100% without question, benefit from issuing more tickets. They make more money, hire more police and get better benefits.
- And one they forgot to mention… If you know people in the local government – and let the officer know – you are much less likely to receive a ticket. This could be calculated by their previously stated model.
The entire 47 page document can be downloaded freely here.