Editorial: Just the Ticket; Incentive-Free Traffic Enforcement

Selectboard members in Hartford have portrayed their move to capture revenue from traffic tickets issued on state highways for town coffers as essentially a no-brainer. We also think it’s a good idea, with a couple of caveats. Call it a little-brainer.

Currently, when town police officers issue traffic tickets on state roads in Hartford — routes 4, 5 and 14 and Bugbee Street — the fines paid by drivers go to the state. When an ordinance change approved by the Selectboard Aug. 6 goes into effect in early October, that money will instead go to the town’s general fund.

Given that the cost of patrolling those roads is said to be $50 an hour and that the need to step up enforcement on Route 4 after a series of fatal accidents this year is obvious, the case for the change was an easy one to make.

“For the town to enforce speed limits on state highways, we sort of have to cover it out of our own pocket,” Selectboard Chairman Chuck Wooster told staff writer Jordan Cuddemi earlier this month, before the ordinance change was approved. “If we pass this ordinance, we will be able to keep this money, and it will pay its own way.”

“I don’t see a downside,” said Selectboard Vice Chairman Simon Dennis, before going on to identify an actual downside. “I do see a downside if it’s used as a vehicle for raising revenue, that is a no-no, but that is no one’s intention.”

Good intentions do not always guarantee good outcomes, though, and there are some issues raised here that need to be looked at. One is that the revenue captured by this change ought not to go directly or indirectly to funding the police department. That would create an economic incentive to write tickets that is incompatible with even-handed law enforcement.

In fact, whatever ticket money flows to the town ought not to be budgeted to support any particular activity, so that any shortfall in a particular year does not result in pressure on officers to make it up by issuing more tickets. Decoupling revenue from enforcement in this way would guarantee that officers would not have ticket quotas to fulfill.

While these concerns may seem overblown, it’s worth noting that once a town gets a reputation as a speed trap, it can have a real impact on tourist traffic and economic activity more generally.

And taken to a logical extreme, funding police departments through the revenues they generate can produce the sort of horrible injustices documented in a recent article in The New Yorker. That piece, by Sarah Stillman, reported on civil forfeiture, a process by which Americans all over the country have been deprived of cash, cars and even their homes by law enforcement authorities without any judicial finding of guilt, and in many cases, without even being charged with wrongdoing.

We have no doubt that the intentions are all good in Hartford, as Dennis asserted, but it doesn’t hurt to build in some safeguards.