Fine of the Times

Speed traps and traffic tickets are on the rise in metro Detroit as communities look to offset falling tax revenue. But critics say the escalation amounts to a selective tax that hurts businesses, tourism, and pocketbooks.
Illustrations by Michael Byers

At the 34th District Court on Wayne Road in Romulus, the cash register begins ringing early most weekday mornings as dozens of motorists and lawyers, traffic tickets in hand, line up to play the Downriver court’s version of Let’s Make A Deal.

The action begins behind a closed door at the end of a long hallway. There, in a small office, a Romulus police officer awaits motorists and their lawyers. On a table sits stacks of court files, each of which allege one or several traffic moving violations.

If there are no complicating factors such as a suspended driver’s license, a bargain is quickly struck with the officer. After the file is amended, the driver walks a few steps down the hall to see a cashier. In most cases, a speeding ticket that represents a costly hike in a motorist’s insurance rate is reduced to impeding traffic, a violation that means cash to the court — but no points on the driver’s record.

A similar scene is played out in other district courts around southeast Michigan where the ticket-writing prowess of police departments are increasingly becoming a lucrative source of revenue.

The 34th District Court processes all traffic tickets issued by police in the cities of Romulus and Belleville, as well as in Sumpter, Van Buren, and Huron townships — gateways through which thousands of motorists pass daily to and from busy Detroit Metropolitan Airport. Court records show that in 2005, officers in those jurisdictions wrote 28,817 traffic tickets. Three years later, the ticket writing more than doubled to 58,936 before dipping slightly to 56,500 in 2009.

Not only is Romulus home to the airport, but also two of the state’s most travelled freeways, Interstate 94 and I-275.

Using a conservative cost of $100 per ticket, the five-year take for the 34th District Court was $23.9 million based on the issuance of 238,788 moving violations (court records don’t distinguish between ticket classifications such as speeding or illegal turns).

As it stands, communities are required to send $40 of each fine to the Michigan Justice Training Fund to cover the costs of police training. The rest of the money goes to the coffers of local municipalities as revenue (tickets written by State Police and county sheriffs go to a state fund for libraries).

From a review of traffic tickets written by southeast Michigan police officers in communities from Ann Arbor to St. Clair County, the number of tickets written in 2009 in Romulus/Belleville ranked second to Detroit, the state’s largest city with a police force of 3,600 officers. Detroit police wrote 192,412 tickets in 2009, or 53 tickets per officer.

By comparison, Romulus/Belleville’s combined police force of 200 issued 283 tickets per officer in 2009.

Continual cuts in state revenue sharing caused by a downturn in the economy, job losses, and falling property values has cost Michigan communities millions of dollars since 2005. To make up the shortfall, critics say, some police departments have stepped up their ticket writing — a fact some Downriver city and police officials fully acknowledge.

Critics also charge that motorists are less likely to travel in communities that aggressively issue speeding tickets and other moving violations, which impacts tourism and patronage to businesses such as restaurants, cleaners, retail shops, and gas stations.

Generating a profit may be what Troy’s police department had in mind when last fall it became the first city in Michigan to adopt a primary distracted driving ordinance. (The city has delayed implementation until signs warning people about the ordinance have been put up.) Tickets can be issued if someone is driving while talking on their cell phone, for example. The tickets, which carry no points, can cost up to $200 for each violation.

Other communities around the state have similar rules, but a driver must be cited for violating a separate law before getting a ticket for a distracted driving offense.

Former Oakland County Prosecutor David Gorcyca says such practices undermine authority. “Law enforcement should never be in the business of generating income by strictly enforcing the laws and ordinances on the books,” says Gorcyca, a senior associate with the law firm of Flood Lanctot Connor Stablein in Royal Oak. “Law enforcement should not be a profit making center.”
Steven M. Taylor, a lawyer from Huntington Woods, who has been practicing for more than four decades, says some district courts like the one in Romulus are handing out what he described as “assembly line justice,” amounting to little more than a selective tax on motorists.

“I look at this as a cost of doing business. It is like a tax,” he says. “What’s happening in some courts now is you cut your deal with the city attorney, or in Romulus with a police officer, who cuts out the middle man, the judge, and you go right to the cashier. With the number of tickets they are writing they have to cut out the judge to speed up the process. Assembly line justice is not good for the system, but it is all about the money.”

Taylor says on a recent visit to the 34th District Court with a client he was surprised — yet pleased — at how quickly he resolved the client’s traffic ticket.

“You spend about 30 seconds getting your deal,” he says. “It takes you longer standing in line to pay than cutting your deal to go from speeding to impeding traffic.”

The flood of tickets written around the airport by Romulus police touched off a turf war with the airport police department a couple of years ago. Airport officers posted signs in the parking garages and handed out flyers to travelers warning them of the aggressive enforcement by the Romulus police outside the airport grounds.

Romulus officers in turn accused airport police of interference, complaining that the airport officers were parking their vehicles near the city police cars to warn speeding motorists, complete with flashing lights.

Airport officials say the Romulus ticket writing effort was giving the airport and the city of Detroit a bad name among visiting travelers.
“It’s not the welcome mat that the Detroit area should be rolling out,” says airport spokesman Mike Conway. “The first message out-of-town visitors get is, ‘ Welcome to Detroit; here’s a ticket.’ ”

Dearborn Heights, which straddles Telegraph Road (another gateway to the airport), also ranks among the top ticket writers in the region with more than 35,000 tickets issued in each of the past five years. In two of those years, 2007-08, Dearborn Heights officers wrote more than 49,000 tickets annually. By comparison, officers next door in the city of Dearborn, with double the population of Dearborn Heights, wrote 16,226 tickets in 2009. The most tickets written by Dearborn officers in the last five years were 28,607 in 2006.

The prolific ticket writing by some metro Detroit police departments has caught the attention of the National Motorists Association (NMA). The

Wisconsin-based grass roots organization, founded 18 years ago to protect the rights of motorists nationwide, named metro Detroit the nation’s speed trap capital in 2007.

In September, the organization cited Livonia as the city with the most speed traps in the country. Livonia ranked first in the most reported speed traps by motorists in any city regardless of size, and first in speed traps for cities with populations of under 100,000, according to the survey.

In the past five years, police officers in Livonia have written more than 33,000 moving violation tickets annually, with a high of 43,329 in 2007.

Responding to the NMA’s characterization of Livonia as a city of speed traps, Police Chief Robert Stevenson denied his officers were trapping motorists.

“There are no speed traps in Livonia,” Stevenson asserts. “Our traffic officers are out there to enforce the laws because enforcing the traffic laws lowers the accident rate. I’m proud of the fact that our increased enforcement efforts have resulted in a lower number of accidents. Our officers aren’t out there for revenue; they’re out there to make sure people are obeying speed limits and other traffic laws.”

Whether officers are writing tickets for revenue or just enforcing the law is open to debate. As it stands, tickets issued for speeding on certain roadways may not be valid because the posted speed limit might itself be unlawful.

Under a little known law (Public Act 85), which was passed by the Michigan legislature four years ago, cities are required to conduct scientific studies to set proper speed limits along municipal streets, excluding those in areas like subdivisions, around schools, and by parks.

To set a proper speed limit, the law requires officials to count the number of driveways and cross streets — “access points” — along a half mile stretch of roadway. If there are less than 30 access points the speed limit cannot be arbitrarily set. It must be established by a traffic study of the speed at which 85 percent of the drivers travel that stretch of road. If those criteria are not used, a 55 mile-per-hour limit is set by default.

Tickets written by police on stretches of road that have not been studied may be invalid, according to the State Police and State Senator-elect Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, who was an Eaton County deputy and sheriff for 31 years.

Jones says he discovered last spring that some cities ignored the public act and never validated their posted speed limits.

“Lansing was one of the biggest violators, and when I pointed it out to Mayor Virg Bernero, he just shrugged,” Jones says. “The city attorney in Lansing was throwing out tickets because he didn’t think they were legal. A city councilwoman did hold a hearing on it, but she didn’t do anything about it.”

Jones says some cities set speed limits low at 25 or 35 miles per hour in areas that can safely handle slightly higher speeds.

“From my experience, there is no reason to reduce speed zones without properly establishing the speed limit unless you just want to write tickets for income,” Jones says. “If you properly post a speed limit, you can always catch the flagrant speeder that you want to slow down, and not just the guy going about his business.”

Last May, Jones unsuccessfully introduced an amendment to Public Act 85 in the Michigan House to further clarify the law for communities not adopting the standards. He said he received little support as the Michigan Municipal League, the organization representing cities, townships, and villages in the state, opposed his bill. The league’s position is that the act does not specifically say communities must do the road studies and change their speed limits.

“I am going to continue to pursue it,” Jones says. “It is something we may have to work on again (in 2011). It’s something we want to address. We want Michigan to be known as ‘Pure Michigan,’ where we want you to come and spend your tourist dollars. We don’t want it to be known as ‘Speed Trap Michigan.’ ”

Supporting that view is Lt. Gary Megge, who heads up the Michigan State Police Traffic Services section. Megge says the popular belief that driving faster results in more crashes is not correct. He is more concerned with motorists driving at an inappropriate speed for the conditions of the roadway.

“If we can shift our focus from simply writing those speeding tickets in those improperly posted zones, we can actually go out and make a difference by correcting the behavior of those folks who are truly a danger to themselves and others,” he says.

“I focus my attention on ways to maximize traffic safety. One of the ways is to establish a correct speed limit which will allow law enforcement officers to focus their efforts on things that will truly affect traffic safety such as drunk-driving arrests, seat belt and child restraint citations, intersection violations, people disregarding red lights, running stop signs, and any other careless and reckless activity.”
Megee says the buzzwords for traffic enforcement are “belts, booze, and intersections.”

“Young children are not strapped in appropriately, people are still drinking and driving, and people are doing careless and dangerous things at and in intersections,” he says. “That’s where we are having our problems. That’s where we are killing and injuring folks.”
The aftermath of the most dramatic drop recorded in traffic tickets written in 2009 by any area police force supports Megee’s argument.

Every year since 2003, the traffic enforcement officers in the city of Taylor have written more than 40,000 tickets — topping out at 53,669 in 2007. But in 2009, according to court records, the number of tickets written in Taylor plummeted to 11,068.

The explanation was simple. The police department laid off 25 officers.

“We lost about one quarter of our department,” says Lt. John Blair, Taylor’s traffic supervisor. “We went from 106 to 81 officers, and we had to discontinue our selective traffic enforcement programs.”

The drop in the number of tickets written did not lead to chaos and havoc on city roads. Nor did it lead to a spike in the number of traffic crashes, Blair says.

“Crashes do not necessarily revolve around tickets. In certain areas (tickets) can have an effect. In other areas, they certainly don’t. People don’t understand that. They expect this massive enforcement having something to do with the crash rate,” he says. “The real true indicators are the condition of the roadway, roadway improvements, the signals, and the volume of traffic.”

Blair explains while the overall number of crashes did not go up in Taylor in 2009, the number of injury accidents appear to have increased. “The overall crash rate is not higher, but the injury crash rate is higher. That’s what alarms us,” he says. “What we try to do in our enforcement is hit those areas where we have the bad crashes, the injury ones.”

A decrease in traffic volumes has also offset the effects of the decrease in the number of tickets written in Taylor. “Our traffic flow has gone down as we’ve lost a lot of population in Wayne County,” Blair says.

Blair adds the corresponding drop in revenue from traffic tickets has not had an effect on the department. “The revenue goes into the city’s general fund, and we don’t count on it for our budget.”

The financial plight of cities like Taylor and the widely divergent issuance of traffic violations among communities are a concern to attorney Michael J. Morse, who operates the state’s largest auto accident negligence firm.

“With what’s been going on in Lansing with cutting budgets, [writing tickets] is one sure fire way to attract additional revenue, and I don’t see a major problem with it as long as they are doing it ethically and are following the public act that says they have to [calibrate] the speed limit to make sure its proper,” says Morse, owner of a Southfield-based law firm and the Auto Accident Claim Center, which has offices in Southfield and Warren.

“I can’t really get angry at these communities if they want to have extra patrols to give out tickets if people are really breaking the law.”
Morse says he hopes, however, that officers are more focused on lawbreakers than on generating revenue.

“I’m driving around all day long and see people texting and driving, not wearing their seat belt, kids in the front seat, and I want the police to pull these people over,” he says. “I don’t have a lot of sympathy for [people who break these laws] because I see the damage they do to my clients every single day.”