A Case Study of Municipal Taxation by Citation

Date01 February 2022
Published date01 February 2022
Subject MatterArticles
Criminal Justice Policy Review
2022, Vol. 33(1) 3 –22
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/08874034211020353
A Case Study of Municipal
Taxation by Citation
Dick M. Carpenter II1,2 ,
Kyle Sweetland1, and Jennifer McDonald1
This study examines taxation by citation—local governments using code enforcement
and the justice system to raise revenue rather than solely to advance public health
and safety. It does so through a detailed case study of Morrow, Riverdale, and
Clarkston, three Georgia cities with a history of prolific revenue generation through
fines and fees from traffic and other ordinance enforcement. Results suggest taxation
by citation is a function of the perceived need for revenue and the ability to realize it
through code enforcement. Moreover, the phenomenon may be a matter of systemic
incentives. City leaders need not be motivated by simple rapaciousness. They may
see fines and fees revenue as the answer to their cities’ problems. Once in effect,
the mechanisms necessary for taxation by citation—such as highly efficient court
procedures—may stick, becoming business as usual.
fines and fees, taxation by citation, municipal courts, code enforcement, traffic
This article presents a case study of three cities that have historically generated sub-
stantial revenues from fines and fees associated with city ordinances. Cities have long
generated revenue through citations and traffic tickets, but widespread awareness
about the extent to which municipalities depend on such revenue is rather recent.
1Institute for Justice, Arlington, VA, USA
2University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, USA
Corresponding Author:
Dick M. Carpenter II, University of Colorado, 1420 Austin Bluffs Parkway, Colorado Springs,
CO 80918-3733, USA.
Email: dcarpent@uccs.edu
1020353CJPXXX10.1177/08874034211020353Criminal Justice Policy ReviewCarpenter et al.
4 Criminal Justice Policy Review 33(1)
Contemporary pundits and policy makers alike denounce the practice, so much so that
it now has its own trope: “taxation by citation” (Bailey, 2012; Dieterle, 2017; Foldvary,
2015; Mitchell, 2015).
Critical attention and widespread awareness began after the 2014 events in
Ferguson, Missouri. Michael Brown’s shooting and the subsequent protests compelled
the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to investigate (U.S. DOJ, 2015). The DOJ found
the city’s uncompromising code enforcement to raise revenue created long-simmering
tensions between its citizens and law enforcement. Revenue generation through fines
and fees long preceded 2014, as city leaders pressed the politically appointed police
chief and municipal court judge to help meet growing budget pressures through cita-
tion revenue.
Ferguson garnered nationwide attention for its fines and fees revenue generation,
but it was a mere 18th among a list of U.S. cities prolific in taxation by citation. Cities
all over the country—in Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Missouri, New York, Tennessee,
and Utah—ranked above Ferguson, and cities in still other states were among the top
25 (Kopf, 2016). And, as evidenced by a 2017 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil
Rights (2017), concern is now growing nationally that such revenue-generating behav-
ior may be more widespread. Indeed, drawing on a broad review of relevant literature,
Graham and Makowsky (2020) argue municipal fines and fees behavior is part of a
larger framework of revenue generation through the criminal justice system that has
become a key component of local government budgets across the United States.
Literature Background
Taxation by citation is when municipalities use their code enforcement powers to raise
revenue from fines and fees in excess of what they would collect were they issuing
citations solely to protect and advance public safety (Dieterle, 2017; Foldvary, 2015).
One indicator of taxation by citation may be large proportions of municipal revenue
generated by fines and fees, although there is no established definition of what propor-
tion is too large. Early working definitions suggest that a threshold of 10% of a city’s
revenue is a reasonable indicator (Maciag, 2019; Simmons, 2014).
Critics identify at least three legal and social concerns over taxation by citation: (a)
conflicts of interest, (b) distortion of law enforcement priorities, and (c) violation of
poor people’s rights. According to detractors, conflicts of interest are created when
municipal courts that process citations are funded by their cities. Multiple court deci-
sions have held judges should not have a financial or other personal interest in cases
they decide, and municipalities and law enforcement should not have a financial inter-
est in obtaining convictions (Marshall v. Jerrico, Inc., 1980; Tumey v. Ohio, 1927;
Ward v. Village of Monroeville, 1972).
Second, critics argue taxation by citation diverts law enforcement resources away
from protecting and advancing public safety. According to critics, incidental benefit to
a city budget from fines and fees poses no problem, but there is a problem when creat-
ing or enforcing ordinances is motived primarily by revenue generation (Ginkowski,
2018). Multiple court decisions have found the same (State ex rel. Pedersen v.

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