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Maybe we need more tickets

Grits reads a story about the decline of traffic tickets in Dallas and does some figuring.

What’s remarkable is not just this year’s drop but the overall 39% decline since ’06-’07. Wondering if the same trend is occurring statewide, Grits pulled the total number of new, non-parking traffic cases filed in municipal courts in recent years from the Office of Court Administration’s annual reports. I was surprised to find that FY 2011 numbers reported represented a remarkable drop of more than 600,000 traffic tickets per year, more than 10%, compared to FY 2008:

Total new non-parking traffic cases filed statewide in Texas municipal courts:

2006: 5,711,966
2007: 5,581,607
2008: 5,749,780
2009: 5,684,813
2010: 5,521,029
2011: 5,148,510

Some police departments – notably Austin’s – view traffic stops as their primary anti-crime strategy, particularly in so-called “hotspots,” so I was surprised to notice that trend. It has budget implications, certainly, but more importantly, what is causing it? Are police deployment patterns changing, and if so, how and why? Perhaps the price of gas and a depressed economy are just making people drive less, which could make the trend meaningless if the economy picks back up. Perhaps Dallas’ remarkable drop explains a disproportionate share of the total. OTOH, perhaps other cities, like Big D, are scaling back traffic enforcement in tight budget times because of limited resources. Or maybe there’s something bigger going on, just as we’ve witnessed a steady drop in index crime rates over the last two decades.

Why are Texas cops writing fewer traffic tickets? What do you think is going on?

Seeing that got me to wondering about Houston, since we’re so focused on revenue these days. I went to the report table of contents and looked at the Municipal Courts summary by city for fiscal years 2004 through 2011. This is what I found.

Year Cases filed Revenue Per case ========================================== 2011 724,009 73,018,272 100.85 2010 926,110 81,460,943 87.96 2009 910,788 80,922,590 88.85 2008 909,555 82,958,342 91.20 2007 925,926 78,967,588 85.28 2006 893,563 57,302,268 64.13 2005 866,520 48,531,695 56.01 2004 785,795 48,870,197 62.19

“Cases filed” are the non-parking traffic cases, same as what Grits checked for the state as a whole. “Revenue” is for all cases, including parking and non-traffic, and “Per Case” is revenue per non-parking case, which is technically misleading since it doesn’t break revenue down by source, but it’s the best I can do. As you can see, fewer non-parking cases were filed in Houston last year than in any previous year going back to at least FY2004. As with Grits, I have no idea why that may be. (No, I’m pretty sure that the cessation of red light camera tickets has nothing to do with this. For one, those tickets were generally not adjudicated in the municipal courts, and for two the city didn’t have them for the first three fiscal years on this chart.) Clearly, some amount of revenue that could have been collected if FY2011 had been more typical was not collected. If you trust the “per case” metric, by my calculation the city could have collected about $20 million more had the 2011 case load been like the 2010 case load. That’s probably a reach – among other things, I don’t know what caused the jump in revenue from 2006 to 2007, or the jump in revenue per case from 2010 to 2011 – but I think it’s fair to say that there was some money left on the table. Let me throw this out to you guys. Any thoughts about this?

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6 Comments

  1. Adolph says:

    It would be interesting to compare to public safety outcomes over the same period. Does police ticket writing activity have any relationship to lower mortality, crime and increased quality of life?

    It is very interesting that in seven years, a similar volume of tickets returns almost 50% more revenue. Maybe there is a value maximization equilibrium that the city would prefer (in the wisdom of crowds sense, not the public policy sense of the word).

    It is ironic that the city was netting the most from people when the recent economic downturn was at its worst.

  2. interesting article, just throwing a few things out there, if you think about how the tickets are issued, it is not just from pulling people over, it is also after police arrive at an accident. I would imagine that with the drought, less rain, less accidents, the police are issuing fewer on scene tickets for failure to yield, failure to control speed etc. This would explain why the trend is more widespread. So far as the spikes it would be interesting to see the monthly totals, I think you would see spikes around election times, and after a news media article about street racing or someone killed by a drunk driver etc.

  3. J Laurence says:

    It’s interesting. I live in a nice part of Seattle and I haven’t seen anyone ticketed in the neighborhood for driving. Yet everyone follows traffic laws pretty well. It’s almost as if police departments are cutting back in nice neighborhoods and everyone in them is just driving well on habit. I wonder what would happen if people started to realize that nobody is actually policing the roads in these richer parts of cities.

  4. Paul Kubosh says:

    It is real simple. Towards the end of 2010 the City stopped requiring officers to be in court @ 8:00 a.m. They moved the show up time to 1:00 p.m. The officers would now only recieve 2 hours of overtime. Prior to the change they could get as much as six hours overtime. Since a Police Officer doesn’t get paid to write alot of tickets then he doesn’t. It is that simple. It is all about Court overtime. When the change occurred I went to City Council and warned them of this problem. Of course my warnings were ignored.

  5. Steven says:

    In Houston, the police are writing less tickets because they are being forced to handle all sorts of other responsibilities. They have cut back on how many dedicated ticket writers and do not have as many overtime programs for writing tickets such as seat belt, speed, school zone, and the like. The city has also continued to beat up officers on court issues so they are not supposed to let defendants off the hook, a variety of other operational tweaks in play as well.

    For the record, they do not focus efforts on poor or rich parts of town, the beat cops working their assigned areas and the traffic guys sent to high accident intersections or areas by their supervisors. To get a higher “yield” from the tickets, the city has instructed prosecutors and officers that the wheeling & dealing it formerly encouraged is now frowned upon. Some still do it but not as many, ask Mr. Kubosh for details, but it is only a matter of time before they get caught short and are reassigned to other duties.

  6. Ronnie says:

    It might be worth mentioning that the city does not keep all of the $73M in revenue listed on the above spreadsheet. The State of Texas gets approximate 40% of those revenues and the city collects revenue for other entities via a traffic violation that may also be reflected in the above numbers. I suspect that the jump in the revenues in ’07 is due to a change in criteria from reporting just the city portion of the revenue in 04-06 to all revenue generated from tickets in 07-11 and not additional money to the city. To get an accurate assessment of the effect of few tickets being written you would need to drill down to the traffic only revenues posted to the city’s general fund.

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