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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A Tale of Two Cities

In February, I was at a conference in Los Angeles.  I pulled an illegal u-turn and received a ticket for $35.  But wait!  With "fees", the price went up to $248.  The couple sitting next to me at lunch just afterward had EACH just received tickets for jaywalking, for $250 per.  Given that the fees are calculated based on the amount of the underlying fine, I can only imagine what their pricetag came to.

Compare this to last year, when I was teaching my sentencing seminar in North Dakota.  We were discussing deterrance and I mentioned the fact that I don't speed when I travel from Grand Forks to Fargo because I don't want to pay a fine.  Then my students informed me that the fine would total $10.  You heard me right: Reason # 374 that North Dakota, and not some other state, is the way life should be.

These two responses to minor traffic infractions highlight the complex nature of sentencing that we must contend with.  A few thoughts:  

  • Fines may be viewed as a good money earner, but they can also disincentivize people from visiting or living in a jurisdiction (I'll think twice before stepping into Los Angeles again), thus reducing the tax base and causing the jurisdiction to actually lose money.
  • Minor penalties, like a fine, might deter certain activity, but more serious sentences for more serious crimes may not.
  • Fines and excessive sentences can delegitimize the law enforcement endeavor--ok, a ticket for a u-turn is one thing, but for jaywalking???
  • Fines may not deter, as in the North Dakota case (of course, the speed limit between Grand Forks and Fargo is 75 MPH, and I'm frankly afraid to go any faster than exactly 78 MPH).
  • Fines and sentences may be deeply embedded in social systems.  It's possible that Los Angeles has a system of driving and walking--and the relationship between the two--that (somewhat) necessitates and justifies the tickets we received.
  • Sometimes, law enforcement systems just go so far off the rails that they cease to reflect any reason.  Eric Holder, what are you going to do for my ticket?

Posted by Steven R. Morrison on March 25, 2014 at 10:04 PM | Permalink

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"Fines and sentences may be deeply embedded in social systems. It's possible that Los Angeles has a system of driving and walking--and the relationship between the two--that (somewhat) necessitates and justifies the tickets we received."

From a 2012 news story:

***********
A study earlier this year found that in car-addicted Los Angeles, pedestrians accounted for about a third of all traffic fatalities, or nearly triple the national average.

In response, Los Angeles has begun to focus on pedestrian safety. The city’s department of transportation recently hired its first-ever “pedestrian coordinator,” Margot O’Cañas.

O’Cañas told HuffPost in October that she plans to improve signaling, striping, crosswalks, signage and lighting in consideration of everyone from children walking to school to elderly people who have trouble making it across LA’s unusually wide streets.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa also announced a new pedestrian safety initiative Monday that will add new visible crosswalks at 53 dangerous intersections.

Traffic safety coalition Watch the Road will also launch an educational campaign, including ads on billboards, bus shelters and bus panels.
*****************

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/18/california-traffic-deaths-2011-six-decade-low-us_n_2323899.html

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Mar 26, 2014 12:08:37 AM

Orin,
Many thanks. That--and the fact that I broke the law--could help to explain my u-turn ticket. As for the jaywalking tickets, I know that jaywalking has become a popular and much derided ticket in L.A. As to that, it is interesting that targeting pedestrians with tickets may be an effort to keep them safe. Of note: the couple who received the jaywalking tickets were in the crosswalk and were walking on the green, but the walk sign (person walking vs. red hand) was against them.

Posted by: Steven R. Morrison | Mar 26, 2014 1:03:49 AM

What is the legal status of 'fees'? I'm worried when the legal punishments can be casually upgraded by (extra-?)legal means.

Posted by: Barry | Mar 26, 2014 9:36:23 AM

"Fines may be viewed as a good money earner, but they can also disincentivize people from . . .living in a jurisdiction . . ., thus reducing the tax base and causing the jurisdiction to actually lose money."

You're not actually asserting that people will choose to live in North Dakota instead of Los Angeles because you can speed for $10 in ND but may suffer a ~$250 fine for making an illegal u-turn, are you?

Posted by: anon | Mar 26, 2014 9:45:42 AM

Barry,
The fine was the penalty, and the fees were court and other administrative costs. Ultimately, of course, whether you call it a fine or a penalty amounts to the same thing: a cost for doing something illegal.

Posted by: Steven R. Morrison | Mar 26, 2014 9:45:49 AM

I agree with anon. The argument that fines might disincentive folks from living in a particular jurisdiction, and thus reduce that jurisdiction's tax base, is exactly the kind of true-in-the-abstract/obviously-wrong-in-reality argument that makes so much of legal scholarship a waste of time.

Posted by: Curious | Mar 26, 2014 9:50:23 AM

I agree with anon. The argument that fines might disincentive folks from living in a particular jurisdiction, and thus reduce that jurisdiction's tax base, is exactly the kind of true-in-the-abstract/obviously-wrong-in-reality argument that makes so much of legal scholarship a waste of time.

Posted by: Curious | Mar 26, 2014 9:50:23 AM

anon,
Defining the issue as narrowly as you put it, probably not. But regulations do cause people and companies to select jurisdictions to live/do business in. Consider Delaware and corporations or South Dakota as an attractive state to set up trusts (http://www.sdtrustco.com/About-South-Dakota-Trust-Company/Why-South-Dakota-/Unique-South-Dakota-Laws.aspx).
As I mentioned, I'm an avid runner, and L.A. doesn't have a lot of streetless space, so its policy of aggressive ticketing for jaywalking would absolutely be a reason I wouldn't move/visit there. Other factors might, of course, outweigh that (the fact that L.A. has great restaurants, for example), but my freedom to run is so important to me that this apparently small regulation would be front and center in my mind in deciding whether to move there (or even to visit there again as a tourist or conference-goer).
Steven

Posted by: Steven R. Morrison | Mar 26, 2014 10:11:15 AM

The exorbitant "fees" on traffic infractions are curious. Businesses put some of their costs into "fees" in order to induce purchases by hiding the total price. But a traffic ticket is imposed upon you, so there's no purchase decision. I wonder if the purpose is to give cover to legislators in imposing unpopular fines for widely-violated laws. "I voted for fines on U-turns, but only $35!"

Posted by: Bruce Boyden | Mar 26, 2014 1:35:15 PM

I remember the snow in Fargo slowing me down far more than the speed limit. I had no idea, though, that a speeding ticket would have only been $10.

Posted by: Margaret Ryznar | Mar 26, 2014 11:21:54 PM

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