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On tickets and plea bargains

Interesting story about the municipal courts, but I’m a bit puzzled by the numbers cited.

About 22,000 traffic tickets were dismissed in a single month in Houston this summer – nearly half the number issued during that span, according to state data.

The substantial number of dismissals, which costs the city millions in lost revenue, is a result of an overburdened court system reliant on plea bargaining, according to police union officials and attorneys.

Traffic tickets are rarely dismissed because of problems caused by Houston police officers who write up the infractions, said Houston Police Officers’ Union president Ray Hunt. Instead, cases are dismissed by prosecutors who offer deals to violators, Hunt noted.

“The courts do not have the manpower, or the prosecutors, or the jurors to handle the dockets over there,” Hunt said. “The prosecutors are forced to make deals with the citizens, and dismiss some of the tickets and only charge them for others. If anybody questions the dismissals, it’s not an issue of the officers writing bad tickets or officers not showing up. It’s the prosecutors dismissing them because they have to dismiss them.”

[…]

Tickets filed in Houston municipal courts have declined from more than 1 million in 2006 to 735,841 in 2011. Budget cuts at the Houston Police Department have resulted in reduced overtime for traffic enforcement, contributing to the decline in tickets.

I wrote about the decline of non-parking citations issued by the city of Houston back in March. You can see all the raw data here. The numbers that I see there do not match what’s in that story. One possible reason for that is that the Office of Court Administration reports are for the period of September 1 to August 31, whereas the Chron story makes it sound like they’re talking calendar year. Also, the OCA report breaks down citations into different categories, while the Chron story does not specify what kind of tickets it’s talking about. While the Chron compares 2006 to 2011, I noted that the number of non-parking citations written between 2006 and 2010 was roughly the same each year, but from 2010 to 2011 there was a big drop. The story makes it sound like there was a steady decline, but that’s not what the numbers I looked at say. Finally, and perhaps more importantly, the city reported more revenue earned from citations in 2011 than it did in 2010, by a fairly significant amount – $57 million in 2006, $73 million in 2011. There’s some good discussion of this at that earlier post.

As far as the emphasis on plea bargains goes, I’m not sure why this is news. The justice system in general couldn’t operate if most cases weren’t pleaded out before ever going to trial. As HPOU’s Hunt notes, this is an efficient way for the municipal courts to operate, and neither of the defense attorneys quoted in the story – Randall Kallinen and Paul Kubosh, no shrinking violets when it comes to criticizing the city – had anything particularly negative to say about the system. I’m curious where the Chron got their numbers, but beyond that I don’t see anything remarkable here. Grits has more.

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2 Comments

  1. Sure people sometimes deserve tickets. I live near a school and there are drivers every day that don’t observe the posted signs however during the time school is opening and closing they usually get a ticket that they deserve. I do also remember though when police officers were respected as “Peace Officers,” and not thought of revenue generators or just another way to bring more income to the city, county, or state.

  2. Paul Kubosh says:

    When the reporter called me about the numbers I couldn’t make heads or tails about what he was talking about. I asked him to send me his data so I could speak about the data he was looking at. He chose to go ahead with the story without sending me the data or further discussion. Furthermore he quotes people who are not in the court everyday and don’t really know what is going on down there. The City is losing millions per year in the Munnicipal Court and they don’t care. I tried to meet with the Mayor and City Council members to let them know of the problems down there. The results were predictable 3/4 of them ignored my letter 1/8 had me meet with an advisor and 1/8 actually met with me.