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Why North Carolina doesn't have any speed trap towns
The New York Times took a very close look at towns that profit handsomely off of traffic fines. This state doesn't have any for a very simple reason, but that doesn't mean speed traps don't exist.
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Back in 2019, I got my first speeding ticket. It felt like a business transaction. A state trooper passed me on a lonely, swampy stretch of U.S. 64 just inland from the Outer Banks, whipped around, and kicked on his lights. He’d clocked me doing 68 in a 55, swiftly wrote me a ticket, and drove away, all in a few minutes. When I got back to the office, I discovered that two of my co-workers had recently gotten tickets in practically the same exact spot. I didn’t know any better, but it seemed like a speed trap to me.
So, imagine my surprise when I saw what was on this map in New York Times. Or, rather, what wasn’t on this map:
The map above shows what I’d consider to be speed trap towns: Municipalities that rely on traffic fines and fees for more than 10% of their budgets. There are more than 700 in all, mostly concentrated in the South and Midwest. But there’s something missing.
The map came from a Times series that looked into how and why traffic stops turn violent. It’s quite nuanced and worth reading in full, but here’s the gist: the odds that you will have a dangerous encounter with an officer are actually very low. But because traffic stops are by far the most common way that police interact with the public, they end up being the most likely way that police will hurt you, or vice versa. The raw number of violent incidents is tied to the very large number of traffic stops in this country every year.
One way to fix this? Decrease the number of traffic stops. However, that’s easier said than done. The reason why they’re so common in many places is because many local governments and agencies rely on them for revenue. One town of 870 people in Oklahoma brings in more than $1 million every year by heavily policing a single block within its city limits.
Again, go back and look at the map. Each green dot represents a town that gets a significant chunk of its budget from traffic fines and fees. There are a ton in South Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee. There are several along Virginia’s southern border. But, again, none in North Carolina. Why?
A Constitutional Roadblock
The reason? One sentence in Article IX, Section 7 of the North Carolina constitution (I’ve bolded the key part):
Except as provided in subsection (b) of this section, all moneys, stocks, bonds, and other property belonging to a county school fund, and the clear proceeds of all penalties and forfeitures and of all fines collected in the several counties for any breach of the penal laws of the State, shall belong to and remain in the several counties, and shall be faithfully appropriated and used exclusively for maintaining free public schools.
Basically, if you get pulled over for speeding or some other traffic infraction, the fine itself is supposed to go back to the public schools in the county where you were stopped. Same thing if, say, you were doing something illegal and the police seized your car or something inside. Those forfeitures are supposed to support public education.
This applies to all crimes, and more: In 1997, the state supreme court determined that those rules also apply to civil fines imposed by state agencies. School districts keep suing lawmakers because they’re supposed to get hundreds of millions of dollars, but they’ve barely received any of it.
Anyway, the next time you do something wrong or illegal in North Carolina, you now have a way to clear your conscience when you have to pay up: I’m doing crimes for the kids!
In several other states, like Indiana, small towns can use traffic fines and fees any way they damn please, so they have a direct incentive to make money by telling police officers to get out there and pull people over. That direct incentive doesn’t exist here. If you’re looking for a reason why North Carolina doesn’t appear on that map, that’s it.
And yet, there are still some places in North Carolina that are notorious for being speed traps. Yesterday, I went on Twitter to ask you all where they are. The answers are all over the place!
SOMEBODY PLEASE TELL ME MORE ABOUT THE TICKENATOR.
You can read all of the responses here, but there are two themes that emerge:
A lot of these speed traps are along interstate highways or four lane roads.
A lot of the folks running radar are state troopers.
However! I’ll give reader Hal Lusk, Jr. this week’s Grasping The Nuance Award:
Strict enforcement vs. speed trap towns
It’s probably useful to make the difference between strict enforcement and a speed trap town.
For example, you could consider McBee, South Carolina to be a speed trap town. It’s on the way to the beach for a lot of folks. It contains about 700 people. It has one traffic light. It also has a slew of eager police officers ready to write you a ticket at the precise spot where the speed limit drops from 55 to 25 miles per hour. In 2007, the police chief and town judge there were sentenced to 90 days in jail. The men were charged with running an operation where drivers would be pulled over for speeding and searched. If something illicit was discovered, the driver would be asked to pay up or—and this is the big one—TURN OVER THEIR CAR TO THE TOWN TO GET THE CHARGES DROPPED.
But here in North Carolina, cities get upset if you accuse them of running a speed trap. A few years back, police in the town of Wake Forest (not the university) were very mad online after some people accused them of pulling people over just to make money, saying only $5 of a $190 ticket actually goes back to the town:
Even though many people grumble long and loud about the enforcement of our traffic laws, those complaints are more than offset by the frequent requests we receive from citizens asking for officers to observe traffic in their neighborhoods and along local streets and highways. In fact, many times when you see officers monitoring traffic, it’s in response to a citizen’s request.
Still, though, even if towns can’t directly make money off of a traffic stop, that doesn’t mean there’s not some other way for them to profit. “Everything’s about money. I can guarantee you that they’re getting something for it,” an attorney in Union County told me, before giving me some free legal advice. “The most useful law [an attorney could practice] is traffic law. If you drive on the Monroe Bypass, you’d better not speed, or you’ll be calling me.”
So, what are the incentives, then?
Long ago, I went to Summersville, West Virginia to put together a TV story on that town’s reputation as a speed trap. It may have gotten this reputation due to the fact that, at one point, police in a town of roughly 3,200 people were pulling over 50 people per day. (The story’s not online, but this article pretty much hits all of the same notes). First, I went and interviewed a man who put up “World’s Largest Speed Trap” billboards outside of town. Then I talked to the mayor, who told me three things that nearly every speed trap town mayor or police chief says:
We’re just enforcing the law.
We can’t control who drives through town.
Our reputation/the sight of our police cruisers makes people slow down, which makes our roads safer.
As I was leaving town, I set my cruise control to 5 m.p.h. under the limit, because a Summersville police cruiser was following me around. It worked!
So, yes, there’s a public safety argument to be made here. Although, curiously, being afraid of a ticket may be better deterrent than actually getting a ticket. A study from Maryland 20 years ago noted that people who got tickets were statistically more likely to get … more tickets.
Fueling the culture of traffic stops is the federal government, which issues over $600 million a year in highway safety grants that subsidize ticket writing. Although federal officials say they do not impose quotas, at least 20 states have evaluated police performance on the number of traffic stops per hour, which critics say contributes to overpolicing and erosion of public trust, particularly among members of certain racial groups.
There’s another incentive, this one with the deadly-boring name of “civil asset forfeiture.” WUNC’s Jason deBruyn wrote a great explanation, which is another thing you should read in full. But it basically boils down to this: If police seize money from you, that money has to go back to schools. But! If they find a way to partner with a federal agency, that federal agency gives them back around 80% of what they seized:
"That creates a perverse incentive to police for profit," said [Dan Alban, an Institute for Justice senior attorney and the co-director of the National Initiative to End Forfeiture Abuse]. "And we want to put an end to that so that people have a fair shake, and aren't being treated poorly by somebody who has a financial incentive to do so."
In the past two decades, North Carolina law enforcement agencies have seized not a single dollar by using the state program. However, they've seized nearly $300 million through the federal equitable sharing program — an average of $15 million per year, according to Institute for Justice figures.
It’s a way to get around a pesky state law by following federal law instead. According to a presentation from the North Carolina Governor’s office, less than a quarter of law enforcement agencies take part in this “equitable sharing,” and only nine departments received more than 3% of the total funds that were equitably shared:
North Carolina State Bureau Of Investigation
Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department
North Carolina State Highway Patrol
City Of Durham Police Department
Raleigh Police Department
Cary Police Department
Harnett County Sheriff's Office
Wake County Sheriff's Office
North Carolina Alcohol Law Enforcement
That presentation recommended that lawmakers pass an anti-circumvention law to close the loophole, saying the modest increase in those departments’ budgets wasn’t worth the cost of eroding public trust in the police.
And just because police can’t keep the money from traffic fines doesn’t mean that they don’t write more tickets when budgetary times are tough. A 2006 study of North Carolina by the St. Louis Fed found that when local government budgets went up North Carolina, it didn’t have any effect on how many tickets were written. But when local revenues went down, the number of tickets went up a little bit. Footnotes suggest that some accounting slight-of-hand might help local governments keep some of that money for themselves.
Yes, but think of the children!
Oh yes, the kids. Forgot about the kids.
The only folks who stand to directly benefit from traffic tickets and other fines and forfeitures in this state are the local public school districts. They’re aware of this: Attorneys representing county school boards in North Carolina often show up at bond forfeiture hearings. It makes sense. If you’re out of jail but don’t show up for court, the schools get to keep your bail money.
So, do schools actually make a lot of money from traffic tickets and other crimes? A spokeswoman for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools said … yes and no:
We receive fines and forfeitures through the county. It is included as part of the overall appropriation amount from the county and this money is remitted to us monthly from the county. In FY 2020 the amount was $1.3M, and in FY 2021 the total was $748K, so while a significant amount of money, it does not represent a significant portion of our overall budget.
The spokesperson also said that she was not aware of any conversations between the school board and law enforcement about those fines.
But the fact is, whenever you get pulled over and an officer writes you a ticket, you are going to owe somebody some money. Back in 2019, a week or so after I got pulled over, I started getting letters in the mail from attorneys in Dare County who wanted me to pay them to help take care of my ticket. I could have done that. Or, I could have driven out to Manteo and spent money on gas and a hotel to contest my ticket in person. But in the end, I fessed up to it, and sent in a check. If you go to school in the Outer Banks, let me just say: You’re welcome.