As if getting arrested and taken to jail isn’t painful enough, residents in Ramsey County, MN are forced to pay “booking fees” whether or not they’re eventually found guilty of the crime for which they’re charged. One example of the latest, and some have said “outrageous,” revenue streams comes from the case involving Ramsey resident Corey Stratham.
Arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, Stratham had in his possession a total of $46 dollars in cash. Released two days later, after having the charges dismissed, he attempted to reclaim his possessions, only to learn the jail had charged him $25 for “booking fees.” In place of the cash, which the cops took from him upon his arrest, the authorities returned to him a gift card for $21 — the remainder after the booking fees were withheld. Worse yet, the gift card came with a myriad of fees which made getting the $21 quite impossible.
First, there was the $7.25 to withdraw the funds from an ATM, then there was the $1.50 maintenance fee per week, and a per occurrence of $2.50 to withdraw the funds at an ATM where Stratham didn’t have an account. All of which made it nearly impossible to get the $21 cash in hand. Stratham sued the county.
According to the New York Times, the nation’s highest court is considering weighing in on the egregious practice of what some are calling government sponsored extortion, which all too often hits the poor the hardest.
“The Supreme Court will soon consider whether to hear Mr. Statham’s challenge to Ramsey County’s fund-raising efforts, which are part of a national trend to extract fees and fines from people who find themselves enmeshed in the criminal justice system,” write the Times.
And the extortive practices aren’t limited to small counties in MN either. In Kentucky, citizens are forced to pay for the time they spend in jail. In Colorado, after assets have been confiscated, citizens are required to file a separate lawsuit in order to reclaim their funds, even after they’ve been found not guilty. The major problem with filing a lawsuit in CO is that if you lose your court case, you’re then required by CO law to pay the court costs of the defendants.
The Times reported Stratham’s case was, “argued last year before the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in St. Paul, a lawyer for the county acknowledged that its process was in tension with the presumption of innocence.” Oh yeah! There’s that famously quoted legal expression which appears to be largely overlooked in 21st century policing in the U.S. The idea of the presumption of innocence until proven guilty in a court of law seems to be overlooked as police departments seek to implement, develop and expand an ever-increasing source of revenue streams.
As police departments seek to make up for budget shortfalls, instead of focusing on catching criminals, a conflict of interests arises. Just last year, a Justice Department report found the Ferguson, MO police department, along with the courts, worked to enforce the municipality’s penal code to supplement up to 30 percent of the police department’s budget.
The report concluded, “Ferguson’s law enforcement practices are shaped by the City’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs. This emphasis on revenue has compromised the institutional character of Ferguson’s police department, contributing to a pattern of unconstitutional policing, and has also shaped its municipal court, leading to procedures that raise due process concerns and inflict unnecessary harm on members of the Ferguson community.”
As The Free Thought Project has reported, many police officers are uncomfortable with their roles in generating revenue for their departments, instead of focusing on what led them into law enforcement in the first place; fighting crime. Left unchecked, the new sources of revenue streams can be as controversial a subject as unlawful arrests. Already, police departments are heavily involved with asset forfeiture, using speed cameras, and “tossing” cars while looking for crimes with which to charge people.
One source even claims police are looking at an ever-expanding list of ways to charge people for their services. Here’s a list of the possible revenue streams police departments are encouraged to explore:
- fees for sex offenders registering in your jurisdiction
- tow companies and/or impound lots that are owned and operated by cities
- fine increases of 50 percent; substantially more fine increases for DUI offenses
- imposing a fine for repeat false burglary alarms, as done by Meridian township, Michigan (some communities, such as Fremont, California, have stopped responding to alarms altogether, citing a high false alarm rate)
- service fees for: jumpstart and vehicle lockout services; ride-a-longs for the public; fingerprinting for employment purposes; checking vacation houses when the owners are away (a truly ambitious police department could start its own in-house security service that includes home checks and security for private businesses); security and clean-up for various special events, such as fireworks and marches; note, however, that you may open yourself up to challenges from residents who have limited tolerance for fees imposed for police services that are either “too high” or that some may claim are already paid for from taxes;
- designated business to clean biological material from serious crime scenes
- allowing advertising on agency website and/or squad cars or otherwise allowing agency name for advertising purposes (this is an idea that has been floated from time to time since earlier this decade in some communities)
- charging a resident fee similar to a utility franchise tax (a quarterly, stand-alone bill for law enforcement services)
- charging fees to non-residents who wreck in another town
- taxes/fees on all alcohol or ammunition sold in the city
- fee for public to use police firing range during certain hours
- public safety fee for all new developments in the city
- offering firearm safety classes to the public for a fee
- pay-per-call policing/charging a fee for each 911 call – though this may be possible only in unique situations as it may be particularly difficult to find public support for this option
When police departments cease being a law enforcement agency, and begin to transform themselves into a business, which generates revenue, an interesting phenomenon occurs. The agents of the agency, the police officers themselves, become incentivized to generate more income for their employer, rather than do their jobs as crime fighters.
As the Rand Corporation explains it, the practice of revenue generation by local government agents is rife with conflicts of interest. “But, the devil is always in the details. Having these assets go (in whole or in part) into the budget of the department that collected them creates an incentive for them to do more—to pursue more resources,” Rand writes.
“If a department starts to plan on having seized resources available—and to rely on them—or if officers start getting rewarded for how much revenue they bring in, the concern becomes whether law enforcement action will become driven more by the goal of revenue and less by the goal of public safety,” the corporation concluded.
As for Stratham, the county’s attorney Jason M Hiveley stated, “There is some legwork involved,” but he can get his money back. The county’s legal counsel continued, “They can do it as soon as they have the evidence that they haven’t been found guilty.”
But the question still remains. If the case is dismissed, or if the courts rule someone is not guilty, why doesn’t the county feel compelled to return the money without forcing the exonerated individual to file any paperwork at all or requiring said individual to once again prove their innocence? The answer may simply be that the county wants to hold on to it.
Stratham’s attorney Michael A. Carvin reportedly wrote in the Supreme Court brief he filed, “Revenue-starved local governments are increasingly turning toward fees like Ramsey County’s in order to bridge their budgetary gaps,” adding, “But the unilateral decision of a single police officer cannot possibly justify summarily confiscating money.” He said, “Providing a profit motive to make arrests…gives officers an incentive to make improper arrests.”