Court case shows policing for profit is wrong

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously last week the Constitution’s prohibition on excessive fines — policing for profit, that is — applies to state and local governments, limiting their abilities to impose fines and seize property.

The ruling dealt with an Indiana criminal drug case in which plaintiff Tyson Timbs was fighting for the return of his $42,000 Land Rover seized after he was arrested for selling $400 worth of heroin.

The high court, in what these days is a rare unanimous ruling, held that the forfeiture was a violation of Timbs’ Eighth Amendment protection against excessive fines. In her first case since returning following her lung cancer diagnosis, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote: “Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties.”

Timbs’ legal action was supported by civil liberties organizations who want to limit civil forfeitures, which they say empower localities and law enforcement to use fines and seizures as a revenue stream.

Justice Clarence Thomas also wrote in a recent opinion that civil forfeitures have “become widespread and highly profitable.”

And while the Constitution’s Bill of Rights protects against federal government actions, it has been applied to state and local governments under the due-process clause of the 14th Amendment.

Wesley Hottot, senior attorney with the Institute for Justice who argued Timbs’ case, told USA Today he believes the Supreme Court ruling “should go a long way to curtailing what is often called ‘policing for profit.'”

“Police and prosecutors employ forfeiture to take someone’s property, then sell it and keep the profits to fund their departments,” Hottot said. “This gives them a direct financial incentive to abuse this power and impose excessive fines.”

We believe the high court’s unanimous ruling also may open the door for challenges against using other local fines being used to create highly profitable revenue streams for local government — specifically those being assessed every day by officers hiding on roadsides and bridges operating hand-held speed cameras to generate revenue for their city or township.

In just the last two weeks, for instance, Liberty Township, Girard and Hubbard Township all took action to adopt or alter their speed camera programs, adjusting funding streams and allocations of profits generated by the programs.

In an especially egregious example of policing for profit, Liberty trustees last week voted 2 to 1 to accept $2,700 per month from the private speed camera contractor to pay police officers overtime to further increase the speed camera program.

Trustee Jodi Stoyak cast the only “no” vote, saying she is “philosophically opposed to policing for profit.” But trustees Arnie Clebone and Greg Cizmar tried to justify the camera use, saying vehicles are “flying on the freeway” endangering the safety of other drivers and police officers. They believe the cameras slow people down.

But how can they when most motorists don’t even know they are being caught speeding until two weeks later when a ticket shows up in the mailbox of the owner — not necessarily even the driver — of the speeding vehicle.

The Liberty cameras generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines from unsuspecting motorists, with 32.5 percent of the fine money going in the pocket of the private, third-party company, Optotraffic — the company paying the township $2,700 per month to generate more tickets. The other 67.5 percent is split between the police department and the township’s general fund.

If that doesn’t fit the definition of an exorbitant, highly profitably toll, we don’t know what does.

Hubbard Township, meanwhile, just adopted a speed camera program and is making no attempt to hide that it’s expected to generate revenue. Trustees there said while they want to increase safety on highways, they also want to bolster the police fund, which faces a deficit. The new revenue plan comes after the township last month borrowed money to cover police payroll and other expenses.

Girard is in the process of redistributing hundreds of thousands of dollars in profits from its automated speed cameras. The current distribution is 50 percent to the general fund, 25 percent to streets, 20 percent to capital improvements and 5 percent to recreation. The new plan is to give 57 percent to the general fund, 30 percent to streets and 13 percent to capital improvements and safety.

According to USA Today, state and local governments increasingly use funds collected in criminal and civil cases to pay for municipal services. The 100 cities with the highest proportion of revenue from fines and fees in 2012 financed 7 to 30 percent of their budgets that way, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

Policing for profit is wrong, and perhaps it’s time that a legal challenge of this apparent violation of constitutional rights be raised.