Traffic fine decline saps local coffers in Michigan

George Hunter
The Detroit News

Cops across the state are writing a historically low number of traffic tickets — good news for motorists but bad news for courts and municipalities that depend on the revenue they generate.

The number of tickets issued in Michigan has plummeted over the past three decades, a decline experts attribute to overall staffing shortages. From 2006 to 2016, the most recent year for which statistics are available, there was a 45 percent drop-off in traffic ticket cases handled by district courts statewide, per the State Court Administrator’s Office.

The 1.38 million traffic citations handled by Michigan’s district courts in 2016, including pending and reopened cases, is the lowest since at least 1982, when there were 2.3 million total tickets. Reports prior to 1982 were formatted differently, making comparisons to later years difficult.

Map: How many traffic citations has your Metro Detroit community issued?

In some Metro Detroit district courts, which handle civil traffic violations, the declines have been sharper. Tickets in Inkster’s 22nd District Court dropped 80 percent from 2006-16. Detroit’s 36th District Court, which annually handles the most tickets in the state, is down from 320,824 to 147,893 traffic cases during that time, a 54 percent drop.

The lenient traffic enforcement has not led to more accidents. Crashes, injuries and traffic-related deaths were all slightly down from 2006-16, according to Michigan State Police, with only a 1 percent drop in the state’s population.

While the decline in ticket-writing is good for motorists, it’s resulted in less money for courts and municipalities. The state House Fiscal Agency estimates statewide ticket revenue has dropped from about $150 million in 2006 to about $100 million in 2016.

“This issue is really a symptom of a much larger issue,” Michigan Municipal League spokesman Matt Bach said. “It is related to the fact that Michigan has consistently disinvested in its communities in the last decade. Since 2002, Michigan is the only state in the nation to decrease its revenue to municipalities.”

Experts say a well-documented police manpower shortage is largely responsible for the decline.

“The backbone of our police department is response to the community, doing police runs,” said Dearborn Heights deputy police chief Michael Petri, whose officers wrote 59 percent fewer tickets from 2006-16. “We’ve got to protect our citizens, so when you don’t have enough officers, traffic details get cut.”

The number of officers in Dearborn Heights has dropped from 86 in 2006 to 44, Petri said. Inkster, which had the biggest drop in tickets over the 10-year period in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, lost 56 percent of its police officers from 2006-16, according to FBI manpower data.

Some cops say they’re being scrutinized by citizens more than ever, making officers reluctant to pull over motorists for minor traffic infractions.

“It’s getting so some officers would just as soon not stop a car,” said James Tagnanelli, president of the Police Officers Association of Michigan, the state’s largest police union.

“Every car has two or three people with cellphone cameras in it now, and they’re videotaping the officer’s every move, and being confrontational,” Tagnanelli said. “It’s not like the officers have anything to hide, but that can be very distracting, and it can take their focus off the matter at hand.

“Add that to all the things that can go wrong in a traffic stop, like a vehicle striking an officer, and you can see why a lot of officers say it’s not worth it to stop people for things like going a few miles over the speed limit,” he said.

Ten years ago, the National Motorists Association ranked Michigan as the worst state for speed traps, based on the number of citizen complaints the organization received. But that’s changed, said Jim Walker, legislative director of the group’s Michigan branch.

“Michigan has become a lot less of a speed trap state,” Walker said. “It’s not perfect, but at one time we were one of the worst in the country, and now we’re hearing a lot fewer complaints.”

Exceptions to the rule

But drivers beware: In a handful of Metro Detroit communities, the number of tickets written over the past decade has skyrocketed.

Statistics for individual police departments were not available from the State Court Administrator’s Office, and many district courts serve multiple communities. Of the 43 district courts in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties, only seven saw increases from 2006-16.

“I got pulled over twice on Coolidge (in Lincoln Park) for speeding,” Allen Park resident Ken Fuller said. “They have a speed trap over there, and they pull people over one by one. The last time, they said I was going 10 mph over the speed limit, but I know I wasn’t.”

Fuller said he paid the $195 fine anyway.

The 25th District Court, which encompasses Ecorse, Lincoln Park and River Rouge, saw a 68 percent jump in traffic citations since 2006. Hamtramck police wrote 65 percent more tickets during the period. Other than Ecorse, phone calls to those police departments were not returned.

Ecorse police Chief Mike Moore said he doesn’t have statistics going back to 2006, but said the number of tickets written by his officers has stayed about the same since he became chief in 2013.

“We had a meeting awhile back where we discussed this,” Moore said. “Lincoln Park is bigger, so they write the most tickets; and while River Rouge is smaller, they also write more than we do.”

Moore said he redeployed his lone traffic officer five years ago to a narcotics task force because of manpower issues, adding that his department has 18 full-time officers. Ecorse did not submit manpower data to the FBI in 2006, and Moore said he’s not sure how many officers were in the department before he arrived.

“I’d like to have at least 10 more officers,” he said. “Our manpower is horrific.”

How speed limits are set

Walker agreed the drop in tickets is partially due to fewer police on the roads, but he also credited citizens being aware of laws that require road authorities to set speed limits according to a specific formula.

A law passed in 2006 requires communities to set limits based on the speed at which 85 percent of drivers are traveling at the time a study is conducted. Limits are also based on the number of driveways or cross streets that intersect a given stretch of road. If no study is done, a 55-mph limit applies by default, except in some cases such as subdivisions or business districts.

Walker and others complained to The Detroit News in the years following the passage of PA 85 that municipalities were not following the law. A new law, which passed in 2016 and went into effect Jan. 5, mandated the same formula to set speed limits. Walker said more communities are adhering to it.

“By no means are all the speed limits fixed yet, but those that haven’t been fixed are subject to challenge, and if you’re in a real court with a real judge who can actually read the law, it’s clear whether it’s a legal limit or not,” Walker said. “Police know the word has gotten out that these artificially low speed limits are being challenged, so they’ve slowed down on writing tickets on those roads.”

In April, the Michigan Department of Transportation and Michigan State Police identified 900 miles of non-freeway state highways for speed limit increases to 65 mph, and 600 miles of freeway for speed limit increases to 75 mph. Most of those increases were in the northern part of the state, with none in Metro Detroit, MDOT spokeswoman Diane Cross said.

The amount of revenue a municipality or court is allowed to keep from traffic tickets depends on the violation. Based on the Michigan Vehicle Code, there are three types of revenue garnered from traffic tickets: fines, court costs and statutory assessments. Depending on whether a ticket is written for violating state statutes or local ordinances, a portion of revenue is earmarked for the state’s library fund, or the justice system fund, which pays for police training.

Prosecutors and traffic cops often cut deals with motorists who are stopped for speeding, allowing them to plead to an impeding traffic ticket instead. The fines are often higher, ranging from $150-175 in most communities, and in exchange the driver gets no points added to his or her driving record. If the offenses are written as local ordinance violations, municipalities and courts may keep a bigger cut of the cost.

John Nevin, spokesman for the Michigan Supreme Court, which oversees lower courts, said impeding traffic tickets are included in the district court ticket statistics, so the trend of writing more of those violations has not impacted the overall decline in citations.

Detroit Police Chief James Craig said police departments that aggressively ticket motorists risk straining police-community relations.

“I’ve worked in police departments where you had to explain if your traffic ticket numbers were low, but that’s not a priority here,” Craig said. “If you go into a neighborhood where people have limited incomes, and they’re getting a ton of $200 tickets, what impact is that going to have? Our officers are given a lot of discretion to give warnings to drivers. There is no mandate that they write more tickets.”

(313) 222-2134

Twitter: @GeorgeHunter_DN