BUSTED: Corvallis Traffic Fines—Where Does the Money Go?

Photo by Tom Lavine

It’s 2 a.m and you just finished dropping off the last guest from the party. As you roll through an empty intersection, making a right turn on red, you see the all-too-familiar red and blue lights appear in your rear view. Tired from the night, and now on edge from the abrasive lights and sounds, you pull over and reach for the obligatory license and registration—all the while preparing yourself for the barrage of questions common in interactions with law enforcement. As the officer pulls away you can’t help but wonder how it’s fair that you just received a $260 ticket for not following the rules, despite, in your mind, the lack of harm caused by a rolling stop through an empty intersection. But such is the nature of law; it’s supposed to be applied in all cases equally, fairly, and dispassionately. While your actions might not have caused any harm, they were nonetheless violations of traffic law and increased the risk of abusing the transportation system by others.

According to the DMV, “In Oregon, a traffic violation is a minor offense such as speeding or failing to completely stop at a stop sign; a traffic crime is a more serious offense, such as DUI or reckless driving.” The person described above would have committed a violation of the law; a person driving home under the influence after a party making the same rolling right turn would have committed a traffic crime. According to staff from the Municipal Courthouse in Corvallis, the base fine for a failure to stop at a red light or stop sign is $260.

Not surprisingly and according to the Oregon State Bar, “Traffic violations can be difficult to fight, particularly if it’s your word against the word of the arresting officer. For this reason, many people who receive traffic tickets don’t bother to contest their tickets, even though they believe a court appearance might clear their record of the violation.” Oregon, like most states, has made it much easier to pay the fine than fight the fine.

Beyond just a fine, the Oregon system is also based on accrued points. Receive too many points in any 18- or 24-month period (3 and 4 points, respectively) and one risks not just fines but license suspension, revocation, or cancellation. This kind of system helps to illustrate that while fines may be bothersome and seem disproportionate, ultimately the point is to keep the transportation system free from dangers so that business can flow. Traffic fines disincentivize behaviors that add risk to the transportation system—and fines are supposed to hurt.

That being said, this year from August 8th to September 8th roughly 480 traffic tickets were issued by Corvallis law enforcement. On the face of it this seems like a lot, but how much revenue would be generated by 480 tickets? In Benton County, 50 percent of revenue generated from traffic fines goes to the general fund of the city where the citation was issued; 50 percent goes to the state.

Assuming half of those tickets were for failures to stop, that would amount to approximately $62,400 split two ways, half to the city and half to the state. So the city generated from those 240 “failure to stop” tickets about $32,000, or only enough for the salary of one newish police officer.

Furthermore, according to the citybudgetGeneralFund, the city budgeted for $867,000 in fines and forfeitures but only received $698,000, meaning they actually brought in less revenue from fines than they were planning. The cost of funding the police, which comes out of the General Fund, was almost $10 million. So the idea that revenue generated from traffic fines is significant, at least for Corvallis, is farcical—it represents at most 1/10 of the operating budget for the police.

Hearing that the police cost the city $10 million might make some scream about the need to reduce the number of officers. According to the Corvallis Police Department, a ratio of 0.98 officers per 1,000 community members currently exists. This means roughly 54 officers are on staff at the police department serving 55,000 people. Teachers think they have it bad having to keep 30 to 40 unruly students in line; imagine having to keep a few thousand in line. If this is a revenue-capturing scheme it appears to be at best an inefficient one.

Photo by Tom Vigil

Nonetheless some have looked at this system and inferred that “finesarebigbusiness” for states and municipalities. What they fail to account for are the costs associated with maintenance of roads, responding to traffic accidents, the health care costs absorbed by local hospitals and fire departments, and the other innumerable costs associated with running a modern transportation city. On top of that, according to the Governing Institute, a think tank, U.S. municipalities and cities have seen a historic reduction in the revenue generated by property taxes and a concurrent drop in federal funding leading to steep budget deficits.

Furthermore, as no national or state database exists detailing just how many tickets are issued every year, extrapolating the benefits to any one state becomes very difficult. While it might be more transparent to have some kind of usage tax that all citizens pay, governments rightly understand that most people don’t want to pay taxes and so it is simply easier to hide the costs in fines and fees. We all pay our taxes at the same time, but we don’t all pay fines and fees at the same time.

That being said, there is some merit to the claim of unfairness in how ticket fines are apportioned and how the “real” risk of any given infraction is not specifically addressed. Instead, risk assessment is left up to the discretion of the officer. Given that an officer’s ability to accurately assess risk is, as with all humans, dependent on his or her current emotional state, it stands to reason that risk assessment profiles should not be left up to the discretion of the officer. Rather officers should act more like journalists, detailing the “who”, “what”, “how”, and “why”, while leaving risk assessment to dispassionate courts.

A possible way to mitigate the ire of citizens over the perceived unfairness of high base fines would be to follow the Finish model where base fines are pegged to one’s income. Under the Finish system a Hollywood starlet or Wall St. banker would pay a multi-thousand dollar fine, while a college student or laborer could expect to pay a much smaller amount.

If the police were to couple an income-derived base fine with a multiplier based on the relative risk of the infraction, minor violations of the law could receive lesser fines and major violations of the law could receive higher fines. While this may already happen in practice, the lack of specific legislation detailing relative risk profile means that the existing ad hoc risk assessment system is perceived as prone to waste, fraud, and abuse. By codifying specific risk profiles, like amount of traffic on a street or the time of day, cities could soften the blow of traffic violations to their citizens without risking the safety of the transportation system.

By adopting am income and relative risk fine system, law enforcement can protect and serve without harming the economic viability of those who can barely afford to pay their bills. This would serve to legitimate their authority without supplanting it. This writer feels that a system like this would be more efficient and less likely to engender legitimate irritation amongst the populace, while maintaining the necessary disincentives to prevent reckless driving and to ensure the safe and effective flow of traffic.


By William Tatum