FINES: The Folly of Conflating the Power to Fine with the Power to Tax

39 Pages Posted: 28 Aug 2017

Date Written: August 25, 2017


As citizens, we expect the police “to protect and to serve.” So how does a police force become revenue collector instead of protector? On the local level, we “purchase” through taxes police and fire protection as well as a myriad of other services. This article, an expansion of remarks made during the October 2016 Shachoy Symposium – Exploring Police Accountability in America -– at the Villanova University School of Law, examines how reliance on traffic fines for general budgetary purposes became a matter of general practice in Ferguson and many other towns and cities. It ultimately serves as a reminder that there are very sound economic and civic reasons to rely upon “taxes [as] the price we pay for a civilized society?”

Michael Brown’s tragic death catalyzes this exploration of the linkage between exploitive financial practice and discriminatory police practices in the city of Ferguson. It remains the case that even in the absence of racial overtones and dire outcomes of the type occurring in Ferguson, reliance on this kind of non-tax revenue to balance local budgets in many other American cities and towns is equally if not more problematic. The practice is one that should be either constrained or avoided.

Recently, the existence, extent, and consequences of the pervasive and increasing use of fines as it affects individuals been addressed primarily in the criminal law legal literature. To date, only one article appearing in legal literature has been written that examines this practice from the standpoint of municipal governance. In this essay, I seek to add to that sparse literature by examining the practice as a matter of municipal finance with the hope that this additional perspective will further stimulate the robust discussion that the topic merits.

Keywords: property tax, user fees and charges, municipal finance, taxation, fines, fiscal federalism, police accountability, criminal law, discrimination, social justice, and tax policy

Suggested Citation

Wigfall Robinson, Mildred, FINES: The Folly of Conflating the Power to Fine with the Power to Tax (August 25, 2017). Villanova Law Review, Forthcoming, Virginia Public Law and Legal Theory Research Paper No. 2017-45, Available at SSRN:

Mildred Wigfall Robinson (Contact Author)

University of Virginia School of Law ( email )

580 Massie Road
Charlottesville, VA 22903
United States

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