America’s corrupt small towns and their predatory shakedown rackets

Are you leery of small town cops? For many people, the phrase provokes nervous jitters about speed traps, police harassment, etc.

When Michael Brown was gunned down by a Ferguson cop last month, he was in all likelihood walking away from a jaywalking ticket. He probably got mouthy, and may have scuffled with the cop, but that’s really beside the point. The root cause of his death and the riots that followed is why the cop stopped Brown in the first place.

This incident goes much deeper than a teenager losing his life by arguing with an aggressive cop over a traffic fine. Those who think this is only about police use of deadly force are missing a bigger and deeply troubling picture.

It’s safe to say that Brown, like everyone else in Ferguson, was fed up with their town’s vicious system of shaking down poor people for money. We have a pernicious system in this country for funding municipal governments, many of which get a large share of their revenue from tickets written by local police. These tickets are an arbitrary tax, randomly applied, that lands most heavily on minorities and the poor. Officer Wilson stopped Brown to extract money from him, and Brown knew it; that’s what triggered the altercation that led to Brown’s death.

This problem isn’t unique to Ferguson; it’s ubiquitous across the nation. America’s small towns have earned a stereotype as places where predatory cops are as much a part of the landscape as feed stores, cafes, and gas stations. Many municipal governments survive on the fines generated by their police force and municipal courts, whose judges are appointed by town officials, and whose job is to produce revenue.

And, in recent years, some municipal governments have added a new angle to their thuggery: Civil forfeitures. Intended as tools to fight drug cartels and organized crime, they’re now being used by corrupt officials to steal from law-abiding citizens.

This predation is not, of course, limited to minorities although they get the brunt. The phrase “small town” has entered the American lexicon as an epithet. I don’t stop in small towns when I’m traveling cross country, I stay on the freeway, because I don’t want to encounter small-town cops. I’ve had my own run-ins with them, and who hasn’t? Students in college towns get a taste of similar predation, although once they leave school, they can get away from it by leaving the college town behind. Poor people who live in places like Ferguson don’t have that option.

Poor people are, by definition, poor. Being poor means not having enough money. The poor already struggle to pay for basic necessities, yet they’re the prime targets of America’s disgraceful municipal shakedown rackets. They’re the ones who get stopped and cited for walking in the street, like Michael Brown was, or driving with expired tabs or without insurance (because they can’t afford them), or, in the case of one St. Louis municipality, for not subscribing to the town garbage service. Yes, believe it or not, that’s a ticket and fine.

The article linked below is a bit long, but reading it will give you a sense of how pervasive and overbearing this system of municipal oppression is, and how much despair it brings into the lives of its victims. Once you’ve read it, you’ll understand why Ferguson’s citizens rioted, and you’ll wonder why there aren’t more riots.

Ferguson’s town fathers know darn well they’ve been in the wrong:

FERGUSON, Mo. (AP) – The Ferguson City Council, set to meet Tuesday for the first time since the fatal shooting of an unarmed black 18-year-old by a white police officer, said it plans to establish a review board to help guide the police department and make other changes aimed at improving community relations. Those would include reducing the revenue from court fines that are used for general city operations in the St. Louis suburb and reforming court procedures, according to a statement released by public relations firm the Devin James Group. [Emphasis added.]

The worst abuses in Ferguson may get fixed as a result of the uproar over Brown’s death, although I doubt it; more likely, the town will try to paper over the past excesses and revert to its shady ways as soon as media attention abates. But even if the glare of worldwide publicity forces Ferguson to permanently mend its ways, there are countless other cities and towns where it’s still business as usual. The New Yorker magazine recently ran an in-depth article about the problem:

There’s a stretch of U.S. Route 301 in northern Florida where, until very recently, three towns lined up in a row like ducks operated America’s most notorious speed traps. The principal business of these towns was writing speeding tickets. In Waldo, where the speed limit on the highway changes six times in less than two miles, 7 cops wrote over 12,000 tickets last year, producing over $400,000 of revenue for a town of 1,000 residents. In nearby Hampton, hundreds of thousands of dollars of traffic fines simply disappeared, probably into the pockets of town officials. The American Automobile Association and other groups issued advisories urging drivers to avoid this highway and bypass these towns on alternate routes. These municipalities are now under investigation, and remedial actions are underway, but there are more places like this.

In Texas, a couple of border towns exploited civil forfeiture laws by routinely stopping and shaking down minority drivers entering the state from Louisiana by pulling them over and seizing whatever money and valuables they had in their possession, then coercing them to sign it over under forfeiture laws by threatening them to jail them on trumped-up drug charges and taking their children. These towns are now under investigation for possible violations of criminal laws. No reasonable person would confuse what they did with legitimate law enforcement. Civil forfeiture laws were enacted to deprive drug cartels and organized crimes of both the fruits of their crimes and the means to finance more crime; they were never intended to be used against ordinary citizens who commit petty infractions — or, worse, are innocent in many cases — to fund municipal purposes.

The phrase “driving while Hispanic” has become a standing joke in our country. Many people accept as an article of faith that cops in some locals really do ticket people for driving while Hispanic or Black. It is beyond doubt that cops profile minorities; police statistics prove it. Minority drivers get pulled over on flimsy pretexts because the cops want to check them out. They seem to believe minorities are more likely to have contraband or warrants. The strange thing is, police statistics show the opposite is often true, perhaps because minorities expect to be hassled by police so they’re more careful about things like not having drugs or open containers in the car. But cops find excuses to give them tickets anyway, and there’s no question that ethnic discrimination is going on. I recall an experience in Yakima when I was pulled over for “a dirty license plate” by a cop who let me go after seeing I’m white. This cop clearly was trolling for minority drivers.

I’m not saying all traffic or code enforcement is a bad thing or is driven by corrupt motives. People who run red lights or speed in school zones deserve tickets, just as much as people who drive under the influence of dangerous substances need to get in contact with a local dui attorney to advise them in the right direction. Crimes like this jeopardizes public safety and requires discouraging such behavior. If I’m required to buy car tabs to pay for things like street repairs and light rail then other people should have to buy them, too. But the existence of an exploitive ticket system is undeniable. When red light cameras were introduced, the public backlash was immediate and ferocious, because many people believe the cameras are a gimmick for increasing ticket revenue and not a traffic safety measure. This may be too cynical, but it illustrates the depth of public distrust of municipal traffic and code enforcement that has arisen from the use of ticket revenue as a major funding source for municipal governments.

Police and municipal courts are the focal point of this public dissatisfaction, because those are the mechanisms used by municipalities to extract money from unwilling citizens. As seen in the case of red light cameras, which have real potential to improve safety, the abuses undermine public confidence in law enforcement. It’s not in a community’s best interests to exploit traffic and code enforcement for revenue-raising purposes because this breeds disrespect for and evasion of legitimate public safety regulations. Most mayors and council members probably realize that, but the fiscal pressures on underfunded municipalities create overwhelming temptations to keep the ticket mills running. And the conflicts of interest are manifest, because the money from fines pays the salaries of the town officials, police, prosecutors, and judges running the system, which undercuts the integrity of the entire process.

The question then is how to reign in these impulses, and end the police bullying and municipal court corruption at the heart of this revenue system. I have a simple suggestion. Fines paid to municipal courts should go to the state. From those funds, and supplemented by the state as necessary, the state should dole out funds to municipalities for police and municipal courts in amounts based on population and other rational criteria. This would eliminate the incentive for such aberrations as a town of 431 people with a police force of 19 cops who do nothing but write tickets at speed traps along an adjacent highway (Hampton, Florida). If towns can’t profit from fines, and don’t have the means to employ oversized police forces, this sort of thing won’t happen or at least will happen less. As the New Yorker article cited above points out, abuses are rare in states that have adopted this approach.

So that’s what we should do: Enact a state law redirecting all fines paid to municipal courts into the state treasury, and giving the state responsibility for giving municipal governments predetermined allowances for their local law enforcement and court expenses. The purpose of enforcement should be compliance and safety, and the function of courts should be giving citizens fair hearings on ticket disputes, not creating an ATM machine for municipal governments, and this is how weRoger Rabbit icon can achieve that.

0 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. 1

    Amazing, the truth is finally coming out about what’s been getting worse for 40 years. THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU FOR WRITING A TRUE ARTICLE. Yoda007

  2. Shirley Shipp #

    I live in a small corrupt town and want to know what I can do to stop harassment

  3. theaveeditor #

    Can you tell us where you live and more about the issue?

  4. 4

    I have been victimized twice by small town police and judicial corruption. Once in 1984 my daughter died in jail at the hands of the police. Now again my granddaughter 2018 is the victim. I fought with all my might in 1984 costing me and my husband thousands of dollars. Now at age 81 I feel completely helpless. What can we as compassionate peoples do to stop, the debtors prisons that the Judicial system has trust upon this U.S.A.

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