Law Enforcement Is Not About Generating Revenue: Speed Trap And Booking Fee Edition (Techdirt)
Wednesday February 5th, 2014
People "ruining" speed traps by warning oncoming drivers usually results in some sort of interdiction by law enforcement. In most cases, what the citizen is doing isn't actually illegal, but that usually doesn't stop the person for being charged with something. A federal court ruled that warning other drivers of hidden cop cars (in this case by flashing your lights) is protected speech. Holding a sign saying "police ahead" is basically the same thing.
The Frisco traffic officer was camped in an unmarked Chevy, trying to catch drivers going above the speed limit, when he noticed something suspicious. Some of the motorists could see him. They waved. He had a feeling that a man named Ron Martin might have had something to do with it. Also aiding his suspicions: Because Ron Martin wasn't doing anything necessarily wrong, Officer Mrozinski has to dig deep to find a criminal charge to use against Martin. He fell back on "violating a city ordinance." Martin's sign was confiscated and he was booked on misdemeanor charges.
Another officer had given him a heads-up via radio that he'd seen Martin out that day.
Martin is well known among the Frisco traffic cops. He has a history of "holding signs in the center median of traffic," as officer Thomas Mrozinski explained in a police report. His signs carry a simple message: "Police Ahead."
Mrozinski drove eastbound down Eldorado Parkway, Frisco's main artery. Sure enough there was Martin, standing in the median of the busy road. He hoisted a "Police Ahead" sign above his shoulder. "The sign appeared to be self-constructed with a yellow background and lettering in black attached to a wooden stick," Mrozinski writes in his police report.
In Martin's case, the officers charged him with violating Frisco's human sign ordinance, a Class C misdemeanor. The police report doesn't explain how he violated that specific law, and it doesn't seem to apply in this case. Frisco's city code defines human signs as humans who are in costume or otherwise holding or wearing signs for advertising purposes. And though he is a professional sign painter, Martin maintains that he wasn't advertising anything that day in the Eldorado median, just protesting. Martin claims he was just trying to make the road "safer." Arguably, he was. Drivers were slowing down after reading his sign (and waving to the cop in the unmarked SUV). In that way, his ends were no different than the cop's: discourage speeding. But the cop arresting Martin felt the sign "interfered with enforcement duties." But unless Mrozinski had a quota to fill -- something that has been ruled illegal nearly everywhere -- the lack of speeders meant there was nothing to enforce.
The other argument used to justify hassling people who point out speed traps is that the person's actions prevent the department from collecting needed funds. Ticket revenue may fund police departments to a certain extent, but that's not the reason tickets exist. A police officer's purpose isn't to generate revenue. It's to enforce laws. With tickets, the two coincide, but if police departments rely heavily on tickets and fines for revenue, it becomes a perverse incentive. Police departments may not like seeing a source of revenue drying up thanks to someone holding up a warning sign, but there's little they can do about it. Generating revenue should never be the purpose for any law enforcement action.
Unless, of course, a very dubious circuit court decision declares generating revenue to be a legitimate part of "police business."
In this case, the court found that charging an arrested person a $30 booking fee was perfectly legal, as the PD had every right to earn money. So, anyone being arrested has to pay, whether or not the charges stick. No refunds.
Under Title 5 of its Village Code, the Village of Woodridge charges every arrestee in its custody a $30 booking fee. Indeed, after Woodridge police arrested the plaintiff-appellant for retail theft on January 8, 2011, the Village collected its $30 booking fee from him, without any opportunity to contest that collection either before or after the fee was taken. Mr. Markadonatos is not alone—Woodridge has taken the same $30 fee from each of the large number of people arrested and booked in its vicinity. According to this decision, it's perfectly fine for the Village of Woodridge to generate revenue this way, either to simply "make ends meet" or turn a profit.
Woodridge’s booking fee clearly passes the rational basis test. In imposing the fee, Woodridge hopes to offset the cost of booking arrestees, or at the very least to collect revenue, either of which is a legitimate goal. Scott Greenfield (along with the dissenting judge) tears that argument apart:
This is sheer insanity. This sort of decision will encourage those -- officers and supervisors -- who honestly believe police departments exist to generate revenue. Seeing as anyone being booked is charged $30, the incentive shifts from enforcing the law to booking as many people as possible. The actual charges aren't important as the fee is mandatory and backed by law. Routine infractions become trips "downtown," rather than warnings or tickets.
In dissent, Judge Hamilton writes what any person whose vision isn’t obscured by his rectum walls already knows:
"This should be a simple case. The village’s 'booking fee' ordinance is unconstitutional on its face. It takes property from all arrestees—the guilty and the innocent alike—without due process of law. The deprivation occurs at the time of arrest, immediately and finally. It occurs based on only the say-so and perhaps even the whim of one arresting officer. By no stretch of the imagination can that be due process of law."
This $30 booking fee, imposed immediately upon arrest because, well, a cop decided to arrest someone (and the donuts are ready, but that’s too snarky to say), is as facially, flagrantly, offensively unconstitutional as it gets. This isn’t a tough call.
The same goes for stretching an advertising ordinance to fit some guy warning other drivers about a speed trap. Both people involved have ostensibly the same goal -- a reduction in speeding. Only one of them believes slower drivers means police business has been interfered with. And those defending this officer will often point to the loss of revenue, as if that were the point.
Even a majority of the commenters at Police One News, a law enforcement-oriented site, side with the guy holding the sign. Basically: he's doing our job and he's doing it for free. An empty marked police car will have the same effect as a guy holding a sign on the median. People slow down. But somehow, Officer Mrozinski managed to view it as an illegal act, one that prevented him and his unmarked vehicle from pouncing on speeders and making them pay. Someone took the fun out of his job and that someone needs to learn that you don't screw with cops, even if all he managed to throw at him was a misdemeanor based on an obscure advertising ordinance.
Read the ruling: Booking Fees (PDF)