Predatory Fining and Mass Surveillance

In Ferguson and the Modern Debtor’s Prison I noted that Ferguson raises an unusually high rate of revenues from fines.

You don’t get $321 in fines and fees and 3 warrants per household from an about-average crime rate. You get numbers like this from bullshit arrests for jaywalking and constant “low level harassment involving traffic stops, court appearances, high fines, and the threat of jail for failure to pay.”

It doesn’t inspire confidence, therefore, when we learn that Ferguson plans to increase its reliance on police fines as a source of revenue.

Ferguson, Missouri, which is recovering from riots following the August shooting death of an unarmed black teenager by a white policeman, plans to close a budget gap by boosting revenue from public-safety fines and tapping reserves.

Missouri’s attorney general, however, wants to enforce limits on predatory fining:

Missouri’s attorney general announced lawsuits against 13 of this city’s suburbs on Thursday, accusing them of ignoring a law that sets limits on revenue derived from traffic fines. The move comes after widespread allegations of harassment and profiteering by small municipal governments against the poor and minorities.

…demonstrators have frequently complained about a perceived hypervigilance to minor traffic violations in St. Louis County’s patchwork of 90 municipalities. Many of those cities have their own courts and police departments, but some are only a few square blocks in size and have populations smaller than some high schools.

“When traffic ticketing is used to promote public safety, that’s appropriate,” Mr. Koster said. “When traffic tickets are used to promote revenue, that’s inappropriate.” Such practices, he said, are “predatory.”

(Technically Ferguson isn’t one of the smaller governments being sued but the battle lines are being drawn.)

The current focus on predatory fining and minorities is well justified but these issues are also the spearhead for important changes being brought about by the intersection of policing and mass surveillance. We all commit multiple felonies regularly, no one is innocent. Today most of our violations are simply ignored, never discovered nor prosecuted, but when the eye turns to us we won’t have a defense. As a result, as Stephen Carter wrote in a superb editorial, technological change and the law puts us all in the same danger as Eric Garner.

Hat tip: Michael Cohen.


I live in Vancouver, BC and quite often head to Seattle. Always notice how many fewer people jaywalk in the states than Canada. Especially minorities. Always figured many were illegal immigrants and didn't want to risk stopped by police. But perhaps the petty fines are a much larger issue in the USA.

I love jaywalking. Figure it is safer than using cross walks as you are more on guard against getting hit by cars.

The point of banning jaywalking is that it makes traffic worse, not that it is dangerous to pedestrians.

Seattle has a pretty extreme crosswalk culture. It's almost like being in Germany. Most of the US seems pretty tolerant of jaywalking.

I agree with Jim. I live on the east coast, but have spent a lot of time in Seattle. Much less jaywalking in Seattle.

I'm curious is yours nonchalant jerk behavior an autistic failure to understand why we have various norms and regulations or more like I poop in the street because it's easier Indian mentality.

Thank you for using "autistic" as an insult. Very enlightened.

Don't pretend to be enlightened. Well bred yes, enlightened no.

Sam would like to prescribe all of the ways in which we may be free.

I have no qualms with jaywalking fines, except in their highly unequal application.

When's the last time a man in a suit on Wall St. got ticketed for jaywalking?

In Manhattan you learn to jaywalk because the taxi drivers like to speed up when they turn corners and don't seem to care who is in the crosswalk. I'm surprised we don't hear about lots of pedestrian fatalities. Plus you get lots of tourists who think the street corners are the place to have a big conversation to find out where they are and where they are going next.

Having grown up in Ferguson, I am sure that much of this fining is confrontational and could be considered harassment. But, I'd love to know what share is coming from mailed tickets from cameras enforcing traffic violations, which also seem to be in widespread use in the area. On my mother's commute downtown every morning, she passes through an area in which the speed limit falls from 35 mph to 20 or 25 in a school zone. The police have set up a traffic camera exactly at this spot. Though my mother generally cruises along at around 32, distracted by her commute-time Broadway musical sing-a-longs, she often fails to slow down upon hitting the school zone. Since the camera has been introduced, she's received multiple tickets for this same offense, I'm sure far exceeding the $321 average!

Just have all fines go into a state or national level pot. Problem solved.

The law doesn't put me in danger of being Eric Garner. I'm not selling illegal cigarettes to children, nor was I arrest on like 30 charges before that, nor do I resist arrest physically.

I've somehow managed to no get arrested or hit with any particularly unjust fines for the most part in my whole life. The case seems to hold for nearly everyone I know. There are a few speed traps I've hit in my life that piss me off, but anyone remotely attempting to obey the law has a very low chance of getting killed by the cops.

The fact that you even allude to cops killing people in relation to such misdemeanour things is in my mind very strong evidence of some most unfree perspectives being endorsed by specific unfavourable elements in society.

Those who would give up so much freedom for security deserve neither.

As a white male, I jaywalk all the time (and without concern) - and also am pretty loose about speed laws as well.
On the whole, every legislature should have a committee for repeal that is focused on either repealing or weakening punitive laws. And predatory laws.
I recall Virginia had a funding gap a few years back. Instead of raising taxes, they decided that the best way to cover it was to raise the cost of a speeding ticket, so that the average ticket was $1000 or more. I think it has been relaxed, though...
We want to avoid systems that give too much power to someone like President Business.

Why does a *city* of only 21,000 even have a police department...why incur the expense in such a small tax base? Relying on the county would likely be less costly.

Yes, the 90 municipalities in one county (seriously?) is the most striking part of the post. That's a recipe for dysfunction of all sorts.

I live in a city half that size that has a police department (actually called a "public safety department" that is combined PD and FD). I never thought it was unusual for a city that size, but maybe it is and I just assume what was familiar to me was common. Is it uncommon for cities that small to have their own PDs?

In rural areas, towns as small as 1,000 sometimes have their own police department. This is despite County and State Police also having the town under their jurisdiction.

Mayberry...just Andy and Barney.

In Australia, Police have State jurisdiction: NSW, VIC, QLD, etc.

Not 'Sydney County', or, worse, individual suburbs.

Its about time the US introduced some economic basis to its tickets and fines... everyone should get fined on the basis of their incomes/daily wages... as it stands, these tickets are a pittance for the very rich, and an unfair burden on the poor, who risk going to prison for small misdemeanors.

From the news today, Marco Reus has been fined Euro 540,000 for his traffic infractions. Ferguson would need only one such violator!!

Its not that nobody's ever thought of it, its that it would almost certainly lose a 14th amendment battle. Pretty soon you'd get into cases where the rich value their time a lot more than the not rich, so should they get shorter jail time sentences as well?

It won't be news to many people that actually the US does this already. The chances of being convicted if you have a good, that is, expensive, lawyer are small. But also if you are upper middle class and get convicted you get to go to a low security country club type prison, where you're chances of being gang raped by Crips is low.

Not so much if you are working class.

Swapping jail time for cash payment might be an improvement. At least it would be done openly and not on a nod and a wink.

There you have it trial by juries are a nod and wink to this guy. Not to mention that low security prisons are not for the rich but for a certain variety of crimes. If one of the rich you so obviously envy murders his wife he doesn't get to go to a low security prison. The kind of traits that allow one to succeed in the modern world-impulse control, ability to control emotions, intelligence, social polish, are the kind of traits that likewise prevent people from committing the kinds of violent crime that generally lands someone in jail. I'm today's America even dirt poor people don't go to prison for theft.

I don't think its right to put rich people in prison even for violent crimes because that hurts the economy by removing their productive skills from the workforce.

Well no, Sam. The nod and the wink is an implicit deal between law enforcement and Upper Middle Class Whites. Not the jury.

In theory I would agree with you. Low security prisons are often said to be for low level crimes. Is that the reality? I don't think so. How about murder? You murder your wife you won't go to a low security prison that is true. But if you murder your parents you may well go to a medium security prison:

As of 2008, both are incarcerated in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation system. Lyle is being held at Mule Creek State Prison in Ione, California. Erik was incarcerated at the Pleasant Valley State Prison in Coalinga.[4] He was later transferred to Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility in San Diego, California

Mule Creek is California's only prison for Sensitive Needs prisoners. If you are a convicted police officer, that's where they send you. Pleasant Valley? Well it spans the range from minimum to maximum and there is no way of knowing which end Eric Menendez was being kept in. But I note that Gregory Scott Haidl, the son of former Orange County Assistant Sheriff Don Haidl, did his token two year term there. The RJD?

The prison is situated on a mesa about 1.5 miles (2.4 km) from the Mexico–United States border,[4] in the foothills of Otay Mesa overlooking the Mexican border.

It is a medium level prison. Although it sounds nice: San Diego has lovely weather.

Did either of them see a single day inside Folsom? San Quentin? Still running I believe. Pelican Bay? They killed two people - in a very controlled and intelligent way which would, no doubt, normally win your praise - but they did not get locked up with gang bangers.

In the U.S., this would result in rich people being unable to drive anywhere without being swarmed by police looking for the slightest violation, while the poor could speed with impunity.

I'd hire a poor person to drive me everywhere. I could probably shave ten minutes off of my commute.

Less unemployment, and the increased income for the bottom 20% would stimulate the economy. A win for everyone.

That sounds like a loss on both counts to me

In Latin America and other less developed countries it is standard practice for US firms to hire local drivers for their US employes for exactly these reasons.

Ferguson is a bit short on multi-millionaire soccer stars & Germans. Perhaps a wealthy Bosnian ?

The Fins do it that way. One guy got a $130,000 speeding ticket some years ago, but even that was far easier to afford than the effect of even small fines on people who earn the minimum wage.

"We all commit multiple felonies regularly"

No, I don't think we do. What felonies have most people committed within the last three months?

If you read about any of the hacked Sony emails you're probably looking at 20 years plus.

'If you read about any of the hacked Sony emails you’re probably looking at 20 years plus.'

This is wrong - reading Washington Post reporting about the Sony e-mails does not make one a felon. And Sony's ludicrous threats to the contrary (this being the same Sony that used rootkits on CDs, it must be noted -, news reporting on such events, including citations, is perfectly legal under long established American legal precedent.

From the linked post:

> Have you ever thrown out some junk mail that came to your house but was addressed to someone else? That’s a violation of federal law punishable by up to 5 years in prison.

Kind of missing the point of Ferguson ...

White cops treat black neighbourhoods like crap for a long time, then some white cop shoots an unarmed guy, and people are viewing it as symptomatic of problems that need to be addressed.

That's the point.

Eric Garner resisted arrest. I doubt anyone reading this blog is foolish enough to do that so I reject the comment "the law puts us all in the same danger as Eric Garner." There's no civilized society where we can allow someone to sell cigarettes in front of stores. You've seen all the t-shirts that say "I can't breathe" Someone should print up t-shirts in the same color and font saying, "I can't obey the law." I feel terrible that he died and I wish the police could have backed off when he cried that he can't breathe. It's a tragedy, but not one that a sensible person will likely face.

The above said, I do believe we criminalize far too many things and it is an outrage that it is impossible to know in many situations whether one is committing a crime. Furthermore, fines should never be used to raise local government revenues and asset seizures should be prohibited completely. So there's lots of libertarian issues that the mainstream can support and hopefully Rand Paul and others will keep raising them. But bringing up Eric Garner or, God forbid, Ferguson isn't going to win over many people who are primarily concerned about raising their kids in a safe and decent environment.

Resisting arrest is a pretty darn natural response. Probably shouldn't allow it to be formally legal, but a state that would penalize someone more than lightly for such a natural behaviour can only be an excessively oppressive place.

My perspective in this is as a person who was once tackled by a police officer who was on a bike, while I was riding my bike, for breaking a traffic law that I did not know about. It happened in rush hour traffic. He caught me within 3 car lengths but claimed that I was "trying to get away" after having shouted at me. I told that guy off for a good long time, and you wouldn't believe how many tickets he wrote up until he understood that I was going to have his job if I could.

First day on the job as a bicycle courier in Melbourne, Australia. I don't think he was punished, but I am positive that it is in his working record. There was damage to a vehicle that I crashed into after being tackled, and an onlooker was ready to stand witness if the police did not cover the cost of the repair.

Alternative headline: "Small town ravaged by crime plans to pay for law enforcement by fining criminals."

Mark Ames may be a liar and an idiot, but he is talented at digging up dirt on people. In this case, he shows how it is "libertarians" who in many ways originated these ideas Tabarok is decrying:

Couldn't get to the end cause I have to go to an event, but a good bit of research from the first part I got through.

Libertarian Police Force: “Easy, chief,” I said. “Any rate the market offers is, by definition, fair.”


Libertarians came up with selectively enforcing traffic violations in poor and minority neighborhoods? I mean I wouldn't put it past them but that article doesn't mention it. They don't over enforce the rules there because people drive so much worse. They do it because the community doesn't have the political capital and resources to stop the abuse.

The Ames article was terrible. Babble, babble .... link ... babble......
First annoying thing was putting the word decades in quotes. Was he supposed to look it up later to find the definition and forgot?
Article goes down hill from there.

"As a result, as Stephen Carter wrote in a superb editorial, technological change and the law puts us all in the same danger as Eric Garner."
Not entirely. It may increase the risk for everyone, but it also magnifies the impact of small individual racial biases through selective enforcement.

It may increase the risk for everyone, but it also magnifies the impact of small individual racial biases through selective enforcement.

Assuming there are any. However what is clear looking at US justice is that racism is not remotely an important issue. The classic case being Detroit. Coleman Young campaigned on a platform of abolishing Detroit's street crime unit. Which he didn't manage to do as it was abolished before he won the election. Wrongful police behavior has soared. Blacks in Detroit are now vastly more likely to be shot by a policeman, beaten by a policeman, wrongfully convicted by police misconduct and so on than before Young implemented affirmative action policies. But it seems to apply across the board:

The study, titled "Does a Helping Hand Put Others At Risk?" will be published this spring in Economic Inquiry, the peer-reviewed journal of the Western Economic Association, and is sure to provoke controversy.
Using the increase in the number of black officers hired as a way of measuring the stringency of the consent decree, Lott found that an increase of 1 percent in the number of black officers on a police force was accompanied by a 4 percent increase in the property-crime rate and an increase of almost 5 percent in violent crimes.

I think that African Americans have a stronger right to good policing than to proportional representation on the police force. But if Blacks do not agree, I am sure we would all agree they can have the rise in crime.

Racism among police officers is an issue we all talk about because we are too cowardly to talk about reality.

Hmm, Ferguson seem strikingly like a university campus where they make up aspirational rules about sexual conduct, which are mostly not enforced (how could they be?), but are occasionally deployed to scapegoat some hapless 20-year-old. Of course, Prof. Tabarrok would much rather write about motes in the eyes of some yahoos in Missouri than his own colleagues, wouldn't he?

I'd like to see a report on those who get all the tickets.
I bet 80% don't live in Ferguson. It's one of those inner ring suburbs that has a lot of cut through traffic.
Ferguson uses the fines to off load paying for city services from the citizens to passerbies.

Someone had a similar comment last time this came up. Indeed, it would be interesting to know.

A view on this problem from an urban design perspective:

Basically, poor urban design is expensive and requires alternate funding sources.

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And let's not forget the biggest source of predatory fines - the US government! It's racked up 50-100 billion in the past few years alone against foreign companies. If you send an email that transits by a US server, the US thinks US law has jurisdicition.

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