NY Justice Courts have become key source of state revenue.

Monday, July 27th, 2009

I was interviewed last week by Justin Mason of the Schenectady Daily Gazette for an article on how fees, fines and bail forfeitures collected by some of New York State’s 1,262 justice courts are generating hundreds of thousands of dollars for New York State and local municipalities.

Mason, an Associated Press award-winning journalist, (for more about Justin Mason, click here) makes the connection between a dramatic rise in traffic tickets and the revenues raised. Some of the main points raised:

  • Fines, fees and bail forfeitures collected by some of the state’s 1,262 justice courts can translate into hundreds of thousands of dollars for both the state and localities.
  • The revenue collected by a justice court is much larger than the municipal cost of operating the court, meaning towns and villages can use the funding to help control taxes.
  • Rotterdam Justice Court — one of the top grossing justice courts in the Capital Region — poured $427,244 into the town in 2008.
  • The Town of Rotterdam Supervisor explained that the hundreds of thousands of dollars of revenue, if not flowing from the Justice Court, would certainly be raised via taxes.
  • How much goes to the State and how much to the Town depends on the infraction. Town or village ordinances — such as parking fines — provide a greater local share to municipalities than to the state. Speeding over a state limit means the penalty goes to the state.
  • Port Chester, a Westchester County village with a population of about 28,000, was New York’s top grossing justice court in 2008, earning more than $2.3 million for municipal use and another $642,384 for the state
  • The amount of money the justice courts collect from convictions may seem staggering at first glance. But what is often overlooked is the state Legislature’s startling increases in mandatory court fees, which remove all discretion from local justices.

What should we take away from all this?

1.  Justice Courts and the State raise money via traffic ticket fines and surcharges.  There’s little talk about penalizing motorists or encouraging future motorists to drive safe.  It’s about money, about who gets what and the fact that government relies on this revenue to the extent they’d raise taxes should this revenue disappear.

2.  Enforcement Officers, Prosecutors and the Courts can exercise some degree of manipulation over how much money is generated overall, how much  stays with the town and how much goes to the state.  Control is exercised by the quantity and types of tickets issued and the types of plea bargains offered by the Prosecution and accepted by the Court.

3.  We should be concerned as drivers if each town we pass through is looking at us as potential income more than simply monitoring us in attempts to keep the roadways safe.  There’s much evidence that this is indeed the case.

The revenue generation vs. safety argument has always been a “concern” to motorists.  It’s just becoming more obvious as lawmakers are making less of an effort to hide their true motives as the economy struggles.  Every indicator is up (number of tickets issued, enforcement in general, money raised) and it’s relatively clear why.

As the article explains:

Increases in these fees without cause or reason is proof the Legislature is attempting to garner more funds through the justice courts, explained Scott Feifer, a Manhattan-based traffic attorney with satellite offices across New York. He said the surcharge increases that were once dedicated to funding certain state initiatives are often issued now without explanation or a clear message as to what the extra money will fund

Feifer also questioned whether agents of the law are being encouraged to write more tickets when they do make a traffic stop. He said it’s possible police are using less restraint when it comes to letting minor violations slide.

“Who’s to say when times are tougher, officers aren’t being encouraged to find more violations,” he said. “When before they’d use their discretion in favor of the driver, now maybe they’re not doing that any more.”

Click here to view the whole article.

Submitted by Scott Feifer

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