In hot pursuit of revenue!

Published 11:00 pm Wednesday, January 23, 2013

There are few things worse than ending a Panama City mini-vacation with a $250 speeding fine and four points added to one’s driving record. The process of a cop pulling me over and writing a ticket made for good excitement for my two-year-old daughter in the back seat (“Daddy, the police officer has his lights on…Daddy, the police officer is bringing you something”); for her libertarian father, meanwhile, the event brought issues of arbitrariness, predation, and tradeoffs onto the radar.

I admit I was speeding; the officer’s radar caught me going 64 miles per hour in a 45 mile per hour zone. (Though, to be clear, the 55 mph sign was within my sight!) The road was a rural road, and there were many cars around me travelling at similar speeds. I, of course, was the person driving a vehicle from out of state, which, according to several studies done by economists, means my chances of being ticketed were higher and the size of the fine was also going to be higher compared to in-state and in-town offenders.

Sure enough, I was ticketed and the officer chose not to mark down my ticket by even one mile per hour!

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What might be motivating the officer to ticket me and hit me with the maximum fine?

There are a number of possible reasons for giving me the stiffest punishment possible, but two of the big factors economists focus on when studying why the police treat individuals who commit the same offences differently are revenue and accountability. Out-of-staters are easy sources of revenue for police because they are likely to pay the ticket and not fight the punishment because of the hassle distance imposes. Moreover, they are people who are not going to cause a fuss with local authorities, and, even if they did, local leaders would be less responsive to them because they do not influence votes. As a result, a significant bias against out-of-towners exists.

If the bias against out-of-state offenders weren’t enough, another factor guaranteed I was going to get ticketed: Florida’s weak economy and their need for revenue. When localities are desperate for revenue, which has been the story for Florida and many other states since the Great Recession, more speeding tickets get issued by local governments. According to economists Gary Wagner and Thomas Garrett, speeding tickets increase the year following a drop in local tax revenues. Even when the economy improves, the number of tickets issued stays at the higher level.

In other words, law enforcement reacts to tight revenues by enforcing the laws more strictly; the driving behaviors of people haven’t changed, but the need for revenue has.

The most frustrating thing about law enforcement’s focus on collecting speeding fines to deal with constrained revenues is not the money we must fork out to pay fines or the productivity lost by people having to drive slower; rather, it’s what their shifting focus means about how scarce law enforcement resources are being used.

More time pulling speeding drivers over means less time focused on solving serious crimes, such as homicide, burglary, and rape.

As a result, violent crime offenses will take longer, on average, to be solved; some criminals will get away with crimes thanks to the resource shift; and, if the pattern of chasing revenue instead of crimes persists because of a weak economy, criminals will respond by engaging in more crime because the risk of being caught has fallen.

The economic way of thinking didn’t get me out of my ticket, but it helps explain why the police officer had his lights on in the first place.


Scott Beaulier is Executive Director of the Manuel H. Johnson Center for Political Economy at Troy University.