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New policy on traffic tickets creates a questionable revenue stream for city

What a coincidence: State law allows cities to tap into the revenue produced by traffic tickets and, suddenly, the number of tickets issued goes up. It does in Buffalo, anyway. Conflict of interest is pernicious anywhere in government but in law enforcement, it’s poisonous.

In the last half of 2015, Buffalo police issued 30,000 tickets, about 50 percent more than they did in the same period in 2014. The difference was a state law that allowed municipalities to keep fine money and the creation of a new city traffic violations agency designed to handle the flood of tickets.

Presumably, police officers are issuing tickets only when a driver actually violates the rules of the road. To that extent, neither the Police Department nor the city is doing anything wrong. The problem is in timing and volume: Where officers used to cite drivers for a single violation, they are now issuing tickets at an average rate of three per incident. And, of course, the increase comes just as the city is able to pad its balance sheet on the pretense of providing better law enforcement.

But the policy also threatens other consequences, including a disproportionate impact on the poor. As the Rev. James Giles observed, while all citizens should obey the law, when governments intensify enforcement mainly as a revenue enhancement tool, poor people are hurt the most. When they are slapped with fines they cannot pay, they risk the loss of driving privileges and, along with them their jobs and whatever financial security they may have.

It’s a real issue. The new city agency already has moved to suspend the driver’s licenses of 4,400 people, a city official told The News. And it’s just the beginning. The city budget forecasts $5 million in revenue from the program and police are out to make it happen. While some of the 30,000 tickets issued were for more serious infractions that went to City Court, most went to the traffic violations agency, which also received another 30,000 pending tickets from the Department of Motor Vehicles. It’s a bonanza for the city, but a bruise on the arm of justice and fair play.

The change also means that most drivers charged with a moving violation will be offered a plea bargain to a lesser offense, usually a parking violation. That saves the driver from having points on his license and allows the city to grab more money, because parking ticket revenue does not go to the state.

While the plea bargaining helps drivers keep their licenses clean, it also allows them to dodge the consequences of repeat offenses.

There is no reason to expect any of this to change. The city benefits too greatly now by more strictly enforcing traffic laws, even if the change in enforcement policy is disturbing. But Mayor Byron W. Brown and members of the Common Council need at least to address the problems this change of policy is causing.

As Giles noted, obeying the law should be a requirement of all citizens, but piling on with an average of three citations per stop is excessive and, depending on the infraction, so are the consequences of loss of license. There needs to be some alternative ways of punishing traffic violations than to make life even harder in one of the nation’s poorest cities.