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2024 | WINTER

Cities Warned Don’t View Municipal Courts as Revenue Generators

AdobeStock_246737025 - Airport Bike Police issuing citation at airport terminal

Alison Earles

Article

2024 | WINTER

Cities Warned Don’t View Municipal Courts as Revenue Generators

Alison Earles

The article “Traffic Enforcement or Revenue Enhancement?” in the Fall 2022 edition of The Georgia Police Chief magazine addressed the widespread damage to public safety and confidence in policing that arises when the public perceives law enforcement as “policing for profit.” Georgia Municipal Association (GMA) publications and trainings address the same issue – the impact of a revenue focus – from a different perspective: when citizens come to municipal court to resolve citations. In fact, GMA has consistently communicated to city leaders through its publications and trainings that looking at municipal courts as revenue centers damages the public’s belief in the city and in the entire judicial system, and litigation and negative press cause severe harm to the city’s assets and brand – including the brand of the city’s police department.

 

When an officer issues a traffic citation, it starts a process that can be far more expensive and disruptive than anticipated. Every fine for a violation has state-mandated add-on fees, people can lose out on salary if they miss work to appear in court, and failure to appear in court can result in devastating consequences that are out of proportion to the nature of the violation. Ensuring the municipal court meets constitutional requirements and properly waives, reduces, or converts fines and fees is essential to avoid litigation and bad press. However, ensuring that police officers only issue citations when necessary for public safety is the most efficient way to limit these risks of cost, litigation, bad press, and loss of confidence.

 

GMA’s warning against using municipal courts and municipal policing as money-makers is so important that the first paragraph of the GMA publication “Introduction to Municipal Courts: A Guide for Elected Officials” states: “Operating a municipal court improperly can create distrust of the city’s police force, which threatens public safety.  Municipal courts should never be utilized for purposes of revenue generation. While a municipal court may generate revenue, such revenue generation should always be treated and viewed as a side-result of the promotion of justice and should not be the purpose of operating a municipal court.”

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Later, the Guide states: “When a city becomes dependent on municipal court revenues, the goal of serving justice may be impaired, the court may not be viewed as legitimate by members of the community, and public confidence in the municipal governing authority itself could be severely undermined.”

 

When conducting GMA’s “Municipal Courts Post-Ferguson – Promoting Justice, Protecting City Assets” training class (versions I and II), GMA General Counsel Rusi Patel and Senior Associate General Counsel Alison Earles urge attendees to review the municipal court chapter of the Department of Justice’s “Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department.” The twenty-page chapter starts: “The Ferguson municipal court handles most charges brought by the FPD and does so not with the primary goal of administering justice or protecting the rights of the accused, but of maximizing revenue.”

 

They share a story that directly links the pressure on Ferguson police to issue tickets for revenue purposes to damaged public safety.  For example, while responding to a woman’s call for help with domestic abuse, a Ferguson police officer gave her a summons for an occupancy permit violation. When telling her story to the DOJ, she stated “I hate the Ferguson Police Department and will never call again, even if I am being killed.” The story’s takeaway is that using the municipal court and law enforcement for revenue generation can have severe public safety and public trust implications for Georgia cities and their law enforcement professionals.

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GMA’s training classes warn city leaders not to set law enforcement goals with fines in mind, noting that in Ferguson, $1.38 million of the city’s $11.07 million budget came from Ferguson municipal courts and the revenue targets “poisoned” the police department. The DOJ report is the most comprehensive federal evaluation of a municipal court, and its observations provide guidance to all municipal courts. It cites emails and texts showing how Ferguson budgeted for sizeable increases in municipal fines and fees each year and routinely urged the police chief to generate more revenue through enforcement:  Finance Director wrote to the City Manager: “Court fees are anticipated to rise about 7.5%. I did ask the Chief if he thought the PD could deliver 10% increase. He indicated they could try.”

 

When explaining why the GMA training courses are titled “Post-Ferguson,” Mr. Patel and Ms. Earles clarify that the damage to public safety, trust in policing, and the city brand in Ferguson was the driving force in GMA’s new training and materials. Moreover, the DOJ’s careful analysis painted a chilling picture of the dangers of a revenue focus, or even the appearance of a revenue focus. However, the lessons of Ferguson and the issues in Ferguson apply to courts across the country, including in Georgia.

 

Providing a more recent example, the courses review how a lawsuit against the city of Doraville recently alleged that the city “violated due process by ‘using its law enforcement and municipal court system for revenue generation.’” A driving factor in the lawsuit against Doraville was the high percentage of the city budget (19%) funded by fines and fees. Importantly, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals’ opinion in favor of Doraville noted that the city budgeted for the police department based on the department’s projected expenses and court revenue was spread over eighteen different departments. The example of Doraville is used to advise cities to demonstrate in budget documents and communications with city officials that they are not relying on fines and fees to fund municipal courts or police departments.

 

In addition, GMA’s materials urge cities to conduct self-assessments of their municipal courts and enter into contracts with municipal court judges to clarify and document the court’s independence from the city and the police department and the court’s adherence to criminal justice reform laws that require waiver or reduction of fines and fees in some circumstances as well as community service alternatives.

 

In the Appendix to the Guide, a “City Self-Assessment of Municipal Court Best Practices” includes the following best practices that relate to fines and fees:

 

The municipal court’s funding for the upcoming year is independent of the fines/fees projected to be imposed by the municipal court for the upcoming year. Budget should include a footnote affirming this.

 

(Reason: If the court’s operating costs are paid from fines and fees, this leads to a perception that the court’s procedures and the judge’s determinations are designed not to promote justice, but instead to bring in revenue.)

 

The city has an established method for defendants to complete community service as an alternative to paying fines and fees. (Reason: National law firms and civil rights groups have been joining forces to bring class actions against cities across the country for failure to properly determine financial hardship and waive fines and fees accordingly. These cases result in damage to the city’s brand, attorneys’ fees, forced adoption of new policies and procedures, forced training, and ongoing monitoring. The costs of being “forced” into compliance far outweigh the cost of proactively developing appropriate procedures and implementing necessary training.)

 

If a judge has determined that a fine, fee or bail amount is due, the judge routinely and consistently inquires whether payment of any fine, fee or bail amount presents a significant financial hardship to the defendant. If the defendant answers yes, the judge either offers community service or follows the guidelines of the Bench Card entitled “Georgia and U.S. Constitutional Law Regarding Misdemeanor Probation,” as posted on the website of the Administrative Office of the Courts, to determine whether it is necessary to waive or reduce the fines/fees or impose community service as an alternative.

 

(Reason: same as above)

 

Training attendees sometimes ask if there is a certain percentage of city revenue from fines and fees that triggers an assumption that the city is focused on revenue generation rather than public safety when issuing citations. The answer is no. The only Georgia law that triggers a presumption that law enforcement officers are acting for a reason other than the “public health, welfare, and safety” when issuing traffic citations is O.C.G.A. Section 40-14-11, which relates to use of speed detection devices. That law establishes a process for investigating the use of speed detection devices and revoking the authority to use them. In that investigation, “There shall be a rebuttable presumption that a law enforcement agency is employing speed detection devices for purposes other than the promotion of the public health, welfare, and safety if the fines levied based on the use of speed detection devices for speeding offenses are equal to or greater than 35 percent of a municipal or county law enforcement agency’s budget.” However, fines collected for certain speeding violations are not included in the revenue count.

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Mr. Patel and Ms. Earles advise that there is no “magic” percentage, but civil rights organizations and law firms may target cities with higher percentages. Indeed, the lower court opinion in the Doraville lawsuit referenced the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights Statutory Enforcement Report Targeted Fines and Fees Against Communities of Color as finding that Ferguson was not unique in the percentage of its budget funded by fines and fees – “in fact, there were seventeen others whose budgets comprised an even higher percentage of fees. Id. at 21–22.  Of those, five were in Georgia. And among them, ranked sixth nationwide, was Doraville.” To prevent a damaging appearance of improper purposes and to ward off expensive litigation and brand-damaging press, cities that have fines and fees as a high percentage of the general fund must make special efforts to demonstrate how their citation efforts support public safety. It is reasonable to assume that civil rights organizations and law firms helping them will rely on such reports to target their efforts.

 

Giving police chiefs the flexibility to design their enforcement efforts without consideration of revenue can result in increased confidence in policing and improved public safety. Stoney Mathis, Chief of Police for Columbus, Georgia, advocates for increased use of warnings as a core part of community policing. Long experienced as a white police chief serving communities in Henry County and Fairburn, Chief Mathis is keenly aware of concerns that police might be harassing communities of color. He is clear to communicate that his approach to community policing is based on the requests of the community for crime reduction. Chief Mathis treasures the Henry County NAACP’s Bass Reeves award for law enforcement that he received in 2007 and credits his commitment to building relationships and maintaining transparency with the success of his proactive policing methods in predominantly African American communities. The report from Fairburn below is an example of transparency that shows Chief Mathis’s emphasis on warnings. 

Fairburn Police Annual Report
Fairburn Police Annual Report 1
Fairburn Police Annual Report
Fairburn Police Annual Report

Chief Mathis encourages police officers to issue warnings and provide coupons for necessary repairs as a way of building relationships in the community. “No matter how professional the police officer is, the citizen leaving with a ticket will think poorly of the officer and the citizen with a warning will think highly of the officer.” “Every time a police officer makes contact with a citizen, we either make a withdrawal or a deposit of respect that that person has in law enforcement” so with warnings, we make deposits, deposits, deposits.”

 

He does not establish any set quotas or requirements, but he says to his officers “remember your chief likes warnings!” He credits his approach with crime reduction, ticket reduction, and improvement of public perception of police. He notes that warnings are tracked in a system so the next police officer can tell if a warning has already been issued for the same offense.

 

Kay Love is a former city administrator and the Director of Georgia City Solutions, a member of the Committee that established GMA’s Excellence in Policing Program. Ms. Love has observed police increasing their use of warnings, noting: “Police agencies are seeing tangible results from building partnerships with the community and empowering officers to solve issues in the field. An increase in warnings is not just a statistic, it’s a testament to the transformative power of fostering trust and collaboration through community policing.”

 

GMA coordinates closely with the Council of Municipal Court Judges when developing and updating its Municipal Courts training materials and publications. In recent years, municipal court judges have encouraged Georgia Municipal Association to invite police chiefs to register for GMA’s trainings on municipal courts to gain insight into the potential costs to the city and to citizens associated with citations. All Georgia police chiefs are invited to review the Harold F. Holtz Municipal Training Institute brochure on the GMA website www.gacities.com for dates and registration information and register for the municipal courts classes.

 

While a few members of the Executive Committee of the Council of Municipal Court Judges believe that Georgia police are experiencing less pressure to issue citations for revenue-production purposes than before, the majority of respondents to a brief survey believe that in many cities, police continue to experience such pressure. GMA encourages any police chief experiencing pressure from city leaders to issue citations for revenue purposes to review and share GMA’s municipal court resources as appropriate. In some cases, it may be appropriate to address the matter with the city attorney. GMA’s municipal court resources are published on GMA’s website under Resources/GMA Handbooks and Publications/GMA Publications.

 

All respondents “strongly agreed” that 1) it is important for city leaders to understand the hazards of a revenue-focused approach to policing, and 2) it is important for city leaders not to view municipal court fines and fees as a source of revenue. GMA will continue to share this message with city leaders and welcomes collaboration with Georgia police chiefs.

Ms. Earles and General Counsel Rusi Patel have led GMA’s Municipal Courts Initiative since 2014. A response to the increased risks to cities arising from litigation and legislation following the violent unrest in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014, the Initiative aims to improve elected officials’ understanding of municipal courts and the city’s obligations related to municipal courts. Ms. Earles and Mr. Patel have worked closely with the Administrative Office of the Courts, the Criminal Justice Reform Council, the Council of Municipal Court Judges, city attorneys, and the Department of Community Supervision’s Board of Adult Misdemeanor Oversight on this Initiative. They co-authored GMA’s Municipal Courts: A Guide for Municipal Elected Officials (published January, 2017), which includes an appendix (updated 2020) of sample materials for cities to review with their city attorneys and adapt: a sample judge contract, a sample annual affirmation for completion by municipal court judges and clerks, a sample probation company contract, and a municipal court self-assessment.

Alison Cline Earles

Alison Cline Earles, Senior Associate General Counsel, Georgia Municipal Association. A graduate of Princeton University and Duke Law School, Ms. Earles joined Georgia Municipal Association (“GMA”) in March 2014 after an extensive career in employee benefits and information privacy and security law – both in private practice with Alston & Bird and Benefits Law Group and for the Georgia Department of Community Health.

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