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Sunday, September 02, 2007

Will the Housing Crash Cause Police to Give More Speeding Tickets?

Judith Chevalier examines the impact of changes in local government budgets on revenues from traffic enforcement:

Welcome, Stranger. Here’s a Speeding Ticket., by Judith Chevalier, Economic View, NY Times: Driving through a tiny Vermont town a few weeks ago..., I saw flashing yellow lights appear in my rearview mirror. My car had picked up speed coming down a hill, and a police officer pulled me over. As I waited for a ticket, I wondered: Does this town supplement its finances by giving tickets to visitors like me?

I never got to the bottom of the situation in that particular town, but the broader question — whether police officers in some towns are motivated by fund-raising as well as safety when writing traffic tickets — has been examined systematically by ... Michael D. Makowsky, a doctoral student in economics, and Thomas Stratmann, an economics professor, both at George Mason University, ... in a recent paper, “Political Economy at Any Speed: What Determines Traffic Citations?”

They examined every warning and citation written by police officers in all of Massachusetts, excluding Boston, during a two-month period in 2001 — over 60,000 in all. Their conclusion wasn’t shocking to an economist: money matters, even in traffic violations. They found a statistical link between a town’s finances and the likelihood that its police officers would issue a speeding ticket. The details are a little sticky, but they show that tickets were issued more often in places that were short on cash, and that out-of-towners received tickets more often than drivers with local addresses. ... The study focused on the local police. ...

Mr. Makowsky and Mr. Stratmann also showed that out-of-town drivers — especially out-of-state drivers — were much more likely to get citations. ... “This suggests that the local voters who voted down the tax increases have had some success in passing off their tax burden to nonvoters,” Mr. Stratmann said.

He and his co-author speculated that the seeming discrimination against out-of-towners by the local police might be explained by two factors: a desire to avoid antagonizing local voters and a preference for ticketing people who were less likely to travel to court to protest a ticket.

The phenomenon noted in the study may have implications beyond speeding tickets. During the housing price run-up, property tax revenue in the United States rose substantially — by 20 percent over all from 2002 to 2005. With housing prices now flat or down, town governments may try to seek property tax rate increases, and voters may resist. Historically, economists have noticed that when there is a lid on property taxes, towns turn to user fees and other sources of revenue — like speeding tickets — to avoid spending cuts. ...

In their paper, Mr. Makowsky and Mr. Stratmann did find that ticketing was modestly lower in towns with high levels of employment in the hospitality industry, suggesting that police departments might consider the effects of aggressive ticketing on local commerce. ...

When you live in a town, small towns even more so, you learn where police are likely to be hiding on the roads in the area. Thus, people without this local knowledge, i.e. outsiders, are more likely to get caught in speed traps. So police don't have to actively target cars from outside the area, people will self-select into outsiders who get caught, and locals who do not. Police can plausibly argue that they don't discriminate in handing out tickets, i.e. that they stop anyone who violates the speed limit, and do just that, but still end up with an unbalanced number of tickets between locals and outsiders. And by choosing sites that are well known locally but likely to snare outsiders - they can tilt the balance even further away from the local population.

    Posted by on Sunday, September 2, 2007 at 12:24 AM in Economics, Taxes | Permalink  TrackBack (0)  Comments (9)

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