Revenue, Race, and the Potential Unintended Consequences of Traffic Enforcement Reform
73 Pages Posted: 18 Sep 2022 Last revised: 25 Apr 2023
Date Written: September 1, 2022
In response to repeated and highly publicized killings of people at the hands of law enforcement during traffic stops, there is growing interest among distraught relatives, advocates, scholars, and lawmakers in traffic enforcement reform. These efforts have included shifts of the methods of enforcement—for example, the use of unarmed civilian units or automated enforcement devices—as well as, to a lesser degree, legalization of low-level traffic offenses. These reforms have the potential to meaningfully reduce the number of interactions between civilians and armed officers, and the violence that too often occurs, in the traffic setting.
This Article considers how the revenue-generating capacity of traffic enforcement—through traffic ticket and forfeiture revenue—interacts with race to create the potential for two key unintended consequences that undermine reformers’ goals. First, lawmaker pressure on armed law enforcement to raise revenue through traffic ticketing easily shifts to civilian units or automated systems, meaning that such reforms risk replicating the budgetary and racial dynamics of traditional traffic enforcement. Second, armed law enforcement’s loss of its traffic enforcement capabilities may lead to rent-seeking behavior outside of the traffic context—particularly through the enforcement of public order offenses and municipal code violations and increased reliance on non-traffic-based drug interdiction tactics at bus terminals, train stations, and street-level stop-and-frisks—thereby increasing opportunities for violence in those other arenas. In other words, heavily policed—and particularly Black and Latinx communities—may experience the worst of both worlds: new methods of traffic enforcement that continue to extract wealth and trap people in a web of enforcement on the one hand, and increased efforts by armed law enforcement to extract fines and forfeitures for non-traffic offenses on the other, all while the risk of violence continues for those subjected to non-traffic based encounters.
Keywords: policing, law enforcement, fines, forfeitures, policing for profit, traffic
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