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Bill Maurer: A Historic Victory Against Taxation by Citation

In “A Historic Victory Against Taxation by Citation,” Bill Maurer discusses his role role as lead counsel in a class action challenging the use of tickets to raise municipal revenue in the city of Pagedale, Missouri, which ultimately led to fundamental reform of the city’s ticketing and municipal court system. What is the impact (social, legal, or otherwise) of relying on fines and fees derived from tickets as an essential revenue source?

Ticketing residents for such trivial things as a crack in a driveway really exemplifies how absurd it is for municipalities to rely on fines and fees as a source of revenue. A crack in a person's driveway clearly does not merit a fine or fee that, if left unpaid, could lead to poverty, job loss, or even arrest. 

The fact that the municipal court hears an average of 241 cases per night begs the question of how fully people are given the opportunity to challenge their fines and fees in court. Given the poverty levels described in the article, it is unlikely that many charged had attorney representation. 

I was really shocked that the city of Pagedale, Missouri worked fines, tickets, and fees (25%+!) into their budget! That's shocking, and I wonder if that's true of many other towns. It really incentivizes and requires the collecting of fines and fees and DOES treat its citizens "like walking ATMs," as Mr. Maurer explained.

For a town of 3000 people, I'm also shocked that the town issued tickets to 18,000+ different people. That's a LOT of traffic through the area. I wonder if that's on par with other towns. I would be curious to know how many (or what percentage) of those 32,000 tickets were issued to residents of the town compared to outside individuals.

Further, citing 39% of its entire adult population for housing violations is disturbing to say the least. The absurd reasons for the citations only underscores the "walking ATM" argument - and no doubt there's a racial element, too.

It's clear that the class action win in this town will make a real difference for the people living there. Hopefully this inspires change in many towns across America, or at least inspires others to take action to make a difference. (A. Coco JLR AE)

Something that concerns me about these statistics is that, considering the likelihood that many of those cited for housing violations were low-income, these fines probably put many people in danger of falling behind on other bills. The fact that all fines were waived for those who had paid more in interest than the original fine charged shows that there were probably a not-insignificant number of people in this category who truly could not afford to pay. I wonder if any people were forced out of their homes because they fell behind on rent or mortgages after receiving these fines. 

What's most distressing to me about the litigation is how many of the fines were for violations not listed in the municipal code! Imagine getting a ticket for something without any law cited... 

Situations like this make me worry about the state of local government in the U.S. What could have spurred the city government to collect fines in such an obviously unjust (and illegal) manner? Did no city employee object? Since we have a federal system, how can we energize and empower local governments -- which have exclusive power over many day-to-day governance issues -- to act effectively and without the sort of rot we see in Pagedale? 

"This constant stream of tickets resulted in a cycle of debt for city residents and led to poverty, job loss, and even arrest." Arrests that are the result of unpaid tickets are incredibly concerning. The fact that receiving a ticket for something like having more than 3 people at a barbecue can escalate to "poverty, job loss, and even arrest" is unacceptable. I am curious about why the city of Pagedale had to resort to such means to collect revenue not only from people just passing through, but its own residents. If the city doesn't have a strong tax base with many of its residents living under the poverty line, I wonder if there are other possible solutions to the city's revenue problem like annexing a nearby area.

I wonder if these housing fines were intentionally used to try to clear out certain parts of the city, in addition to serving as a revenue source. Other cities have strategically used housing violations to justify condemning property to make way for new development. In the Pagedale case, were there any patterns in the issuance of housing fines?

Though the article doesn't focus on whether any particular group was targeted by Pagedale's absurd fine and citation system, but it's easy to imagine such a regime being used to target citizens on the basis of race, income, or other criteria. Even with equal application, the city's system is incredibly troubling. Many simply don't have the resources to pay off these ridiculous fines, and it doesn't seem like anyone could actually escape being fined, no matter their actions.

What is striking about the situation in Pagedale is how common place it is for a city to rely on revenue from ticketing.  In 2019, Governing Magazine conducted a national analysis on fine revenues and the extent to which they fund city/town budgets. The study used the annual financial audits and reports from state agencies. In almost 600 U.S. towns, 10% of the budget is accounted for through fines and ticketing. In nearly 300, that figure rises up to 20%. I would be very interested in better understanding the connection between racial demographics, socio-economic demographics, and towns/counties that rely on punitive fines and fees for a significant part of their budget.