Cities Likely to Use COVID Crisis to Ramp Up Abusive Fines and Fees

(Michael Barnes, Liberty Headlines) As cities and towns face mounting financial woes due to the Wuhan coronavirus economic shutdown, they’re likely to ramp up predatory revenue streams without risking political blow-back from new tax proposals.

But according to the Institute for Justice, a public interest law firm, ordinary Americans—many of whom are already struggling with illness or unemployment—are going to pay the price of these “taxation by citation” schemes.

“Regardless of what municipalities need or what state laws allow, cities should use code enforcement only to protect the public, not to shore up their finances,” said Bill Maurer, a senior IJ lawyer.

Maurer is the lead attorney on several lawsuits pushing back on citation schemes. He says state lawmakers have a crucial role to play in shutting down “municipal fines and fees abuse” because state legislatures can preempt local ordinances..

Cities and towns across the country habitually use traffic tickets, property code fines and other self-serving ordinances to raise revenue under the guise of public safety. But the Wuhan virus offers an unprecedented opportunity to scale-up.

Such schemes exploded in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. Now, the Wuhan pandemic has created an economic downturn coupled with a once-in-a-lifetime public-health crisis where all levels of government have assumed previously unthinkable expansions of power.

Accordingly, cash-hungry local politicians are poised to push citation abuse to new levels.

It’s already happening in some places. Earlier this month, the Marshall Project reported jurisdictions nationwide are aggressively pursuing court debts and even issuing new fines while courts and other public offices are closed.

In response, the Institute for Justice has released a report, “Municipal Fines and Fees: A 50-State Survey of State Laws,” that identifies a wide range of laws enabling citation abuses. The report is a comprehensive accounting that uses 52 legal factors to rank all 50 states.

Georgia is the worst-ranking state in the country. Georgia’s state legal framework gives broad authority for cities to enact codes and enforce them in their own courts while denying common-sense protections against unjust convictions.

North Carolina, on the other hand, ranks highest. North Carolina’s legal environment is the least conducive to municipal fines and fees abuse because it does not allow cities and towns to operate their own courts. It also prohibits jailing people or suspending their driver’s licenses when they cannot pay fines and fees—unless they’re willfully noncompliant.

The ACLU disagrees, however. The progressive legal organization asserts that North Carolina engages in debtors’ prisons, where “thousands of low-income people are in jail, trapped in a cycle of debt, or both, because they cannot afford the unconstitutional fines and fees that courts order them to pay when convicted of any crime, even as minor as a speeding ticket.”

Whatever the case, more than 840 cities and towns across the country generate more than 10 percent of their annual revenues from tickets, fines and fees, according to the nonpartisan Governing magazine.

“Whether municipalities engage in taxation by citation is ultimately a matter of local policy, but state policymakers should take a hard look at how state laws may be contributing to the problem,” said Dick Carpenter, director of strategic research at IJ and co-author of the report.