A Handful of Colorado Towns Rely Heavily on Money from Traffic Tickets

Morrison Police Lt. Anthony Joiner tracks drivers during a traffic patrol in the small foothills town west of Denver on March 27, 2015. In 2014, traffic fines and fees account for more than half of the money generated by the Morrison.

Katie Kuntz / Rocky Mountain PBS I-News

Morrison Police Lt. Anthony Joiner tracks drivers during a traffic patrol in the small foothills town west of Denver on March 27, 2015. In 2014, traffic fines and fees account for more than half of the money generated by the Morrison.

Her toddler balanced on her hip, Ashlee Lucero approached the Mountain View municipal courthouse earlier this month to ask the presiding judge for community service. She was still unable to pay off a traffic ticket she received last September.

“I was in jail for a whole day,” said Lucero, a 23-year-old single mother from Thornton. “A misunderstanding happens and they take me to court for it and I am still trying to pay for this ticket.”

Mountain View, population 518,  is small geographically, stretching just six blocks east to west, Sheridan Boulevard to Fenton Street, between Denver and Wheat Ridge, and three blocks north to south, W. 44th Avenue to W. 41st Avenue. The police force consists of 10 officers.

In 2014, Mountain View police patrolling the town’s several blocks wrote 3,624 traffic tickets.

Ashlee Lucero talks about struggling to pay a $80 traffic fine and an added $130 in fees issued last September in Mountain View -- a six block by three block town tucked between Denver and Wheat Ridge. When she missed a payment on the fine, Mountain View issued a Contempt of Traffic Court warrant for her that led to a night in jail. She said she lost her job because of that.  Mountain View's reliance on traffic fines and fees is second highest in Colorado.

Katie Kuntz / Rocky Mountain PBS I-News

Ashlee Lucero talks about struggling to pay a $80 traffic fine and an added $130 in fees issued last September in Mountain View — a six block by three block town tucked between Denver and Wheat Ridge. When she missed a payment on the fine, Mountain View issued a Contempt of Traffic Court warrant for her that led to a night in jail. She said she lost her job because of that. Mountain View\’s reliance on traffic fines and fees is second highest in Colorado.

Final records for 2014 were not available, but in 2013 ticket revenues generated $621,099 – more than half of Mountain View’s municipal budget. As a percentage of total, that’s more than ten times more than most Colorado communities earn from traffic tickets and related court fines.

Rocky Mountain PBS I-News, in collaboration with 9Wants to Know, analyzed 270 municipal budgets in Colorado. Of those, 230 cities and towns reported revenue from traffic tickets. Only 40 municipalities earned more than 4 percent of revenue from citations.

Of those 40 towns, Mountain View had the second highest percentage of revenue from fines, 53 percent in 2013.

Ashlee Lucero found herself caught in Mountain View traffic court after being stopped on Sept. 11, 2014 and ultimately cited for “defective tires,” though the police report shows she was pulled over for “unreadable temporary tags.”

To date, Lucero has paid $130 dollars towards her ticket. The original citation was for $80.

“From the beginning I owed $175, to $150, to $90,”  Lucero said, describing the complicated charges and fees added as she made payments. “They just added on $10 dollars, so I’m back at $100. And they are still trying to take money out of my pocket.”

After her original citation, Lucero was fined at least $130 in service fees and court costs. According to her court records, she was given a $155 payment due date for mid-February, after making a $55 payment in November. Even though her next payment was not due, she was summoned back to court in December. When she did not return, Mountain View issued a warrant for her arrest citing “Contempt of Court Traffic.”

Lucero was pulled over on the warrant in Adams County on Jan. 22 and spent the day in jail. As a result, she paid a $75 bond, but lost more than money.

“I lost my job,” Lucero said, and that led to more trouble. “We’re back at my mom and dad’s house now because I lost everything.”

During the April 15 hearing, Judge Mark Pautler did not acknowledge Lucero’s request for community service.

“We haven’t done anything illegal, haven’t done anything wrong,” said Mountain View Mayor Jeff Kiddie, of his town’s policing policies. “I don’t look at it as revenue to be perfectly honest with you. I look at it as public safety.”

According to traffic ticket data provided to 9Wants to Know and Rocky Mountain PBS I-News, Mountain View’s most common tickets were seat belt violations (847), red light violations (372) and “obstructed view” (274) which can include cracked windshields or anything hanging from a rearview mirror. There were seven defective tire tickets like Lucero’s.

ust five towns in Colorado earned more than 30 percent of revenue from fines and forfeitures in 2013, the most recent complete data available. Statewide, fines account for four percent of municipal budgets on average.

Just five towns in Colorado earned more than 30 percent of revenue from fines and forfeitures in 2013, the
most recent complete data available. Statewide, fines account for four percent of municipal budgets on average.

“We’re very careful about what tickets we write, and that our officers are doing what they should be doing,” Kiddie said. “I don’t think we’ve done anything other than enforce traffic code and laws that are on the books.”

University of Colorado Denver professor Lonnie Schaible, who works in the School of Public Affairs and studies policing practices, said that there are multiple concerns when municipalities rely heavily on traffic tickets for revenue.

“I think most police would tell you that we are in a constant state of non-compliance when it comes to traffic and driving,” Schaible said. “We are almost always doing something that we could be pulled over for.

“I don’t think that traffic tickets are the answer to traffic safety, in general. There’s no real evidence that you might not get the same effect handing out warnings or placing a dummy car,” Schaible said. “It might damage relationships with the public, who respond, ‘OK, well why aren’t the police doing something else?’”

But in Colorado towns where ticket revenue accounts for more than 30 percent of the budget, police and city officials insist the efforts are focused on public safety – and there often isn’t much else for police to do.

“It’s not about making the town money,” said Morrison Police Lt. Anthony Joiner. “We have never once been asked by the town board to bring in more money. It’s safety first. We answer calls, but last year we had under 500 calls for service. So during regular time, the officers are patrolling.”

The U.S. Census reports Morrison’s population at 428, but with 146 of those residents in the Bear Creek Care and Rehabilitation Center. The police force has more than 20 full-time, part-time and reserve officers. The town’s all black cruisers and SUVs are often seen along U.S. 285 in Turkey Creek Canyon or on SR 470 with multiple arrays of safety lights flashing.

In 2013, fines accounted for 52 percent of the town’s total revenue. Police Chief Rudy Sandoval attributes this to the major highways his department is responsible for monitoring, and said the practices are fair.

“We only write violations that, in my opinion and in most states and most jurisdictions’ opinions, are public safety violations,” Sandoval said.

Morrison’s policy is that police will only stop and ticket those drivers exceeding the posted limit by more than 15 miles per hour, said the chief.

Morrison Police Lt. Anthony Joiner writes a ticket during patrol in the small foothills town west of Denver on March 27, 2015. In 2014, traffic fines and fees account for more than half of the money generated by Morrison.

Katie Kuntz / Rocky Mountain PBS I-News

Morrison Police Lt. Anthony Joiner writes a ticket during patrol in the small foothills town west of Denver on March 27, 2015. In 2014, traffic fines and fees account for more than half of the money generated by Morrison.

“We are considered a speed trap,” Lt. Joiner said, “but you can’t argue 15 miles over.”

In 2013, Morrison made more than $1.15 million from traffic fines and fees, which more than covered police department costs, $846,000, and municipal court, $148,025.

Some lawmakers and civil rights advocates fear that when a community relies on traffic tickets and fines as a major revenue source it can lead to trouble.

“It’s a problem that has to be stopped,” said U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D- Mo.

Cleaver has proposed federal legislation that would not allow communities to generate more than 30 percent of their revenue from fines and court fees. The bill was inspired by a U.S. Department of Justice report on Ferguson, Mo., in the aftermath of the police shooting of Michael Brown last August and widespread unrest, that found police were stopping citizens to increase revenue for the city.

“They were having a situation where they were creating taxation by citation,” the congressman said. “The police department was used as some kind of fundraising group. We can’t allow that to go on.”

Yet one prominent spokesman for Colorado cities and towns said federal legislation is the wrong way to go.

“I just think that, for the Congress or for the state legislature to place limits on that, we would be very resistant to that,” said Sam Mamet, the executive director of the Colorado Municipal League.

“This is something that’s in the purview of local control,” Mamet said. “And so in our smaller towns, this could become an important revenue source for them. If the community has said, ‘We want traffic enforcement to be something significant you do in your police department, chief’ –  it should be left to the community.”

All towns and municipalities in Colorado collected a combined $122 million in traffic ticket revenues in 2013.  But the 30 percent cap on revenue from fines proposed by Cleaver would impact only five towns in Colorado, as of 2013 data. One town, Campo in far south Colorado just north of the Oklahoma border, could cease to exist without traffic ticket revenues.

“Basically, the police department pays for the town,” said Campo police officer Brad Viner, who is currently the only member of the department. Last year he wrote 400 traffic tickets.

“It’s a tough position, but public safety comes first,” Viner said.  “It falls under integrity. What am I willing to do. What am I not willing to do. ”

Traffic tickets in Campo comprised 93 percent of the town’s budget in 2013. That was more than $300,000 for the town of 107 people. The town relies on tickets. Without them, said Mayor Tim Grey, services would be significantly reduced.

“Yes, if we don’t have revenue coming in, and presently, most of our revenue comes in from tickets, then we won’t have the money to pay anyone,” Grey said. “Then at some point we’ll reduce, not to the point of dissolving the town, hopefully, but we’ll have to reduce police force, we’ll have to reduce … everything.”

Campo police officer Brad Viner stands near his patrol car in Campo, Colo., in far southeast Colorado on March 23, 2015. Viner said he wrote 400 tickets last year. "Basically, the police department pays for the town,” he said.

Katie Kuntz / Rocky Mountain PBS I-News

Campo police officer Brad Viner stands near his patrol car in Campo, Colo., in far southwest Colorado on March 23, 2015. Viner said he wrote 400 tickets last year. \”Basically, the police department pays for the town,” he said.

13 thoughts on “A Handful of Colorado Towns Rely Heavily on Money from Traffic Tickets

  1. Local governments should not have any authority deciding which laws to enforce. Mandates from Washington are much more efficient in all situations and places.

  2. “Rocky Mountain PBS I-News, in collaboration with 9Wants to Know, analyzed 270 municipal budgets in Colorado. Of those, 230 cities and towns reported revenue from traffic tickets. Only 40 municipalities earned more than 4 percent of revenue from citations.

    Of those 40 towns, Mountain View had the second highest percentage of revenue from fines, 53 percent in 2013.”

    Your new segment on PBS said we could look at this list on the website here. I am having a difficult time finding it however.

    Could you post the link to the list here?

    thank you

    curious how Louisville stacks up as I and many of my friends avoid the city altogether(sale tax dollars and all) because of it’s aggressive police. Thanks

  3. this has got to stop – any city gathering more than 40% of revenue will be dissolved and the service turned over to the county

  4. Can you look into douglas county tickets from 85? I go motorcycling near Sedalia and literally eveyone I know that goes there or have met there have all gotten tickets on 85 in douglas county. How much of their revenue is from tickets?

    • Hi Jason,

      I’m Katie Kuntz, the reporter who did this analysis. We didn’t look at counties, but I analyzed cities and towns. However, to answer your question, Littleton, CO – which is on Highway 85, made $1.7 million from tickets in 2013. However, because it is a relatively large community, that only accounted for 3.1 percent of it’s budget, according to the data provided by the Department of Local Affairs. Hope this helps!

  5. Thanks Katie, our town of Nederland has been recently alarmed at the increased police force and excessive tickets given in our small mountain town. Do you have the figures for us? This will really help clarify things for residents here.

    • Hi Andrew,
      In 2013, the Town of Nederland reported generating $26,000 from citations – which was only 1.4 percent of revenue. You can take a look at the town’s upcoming budgets, if you’re interested, at this webpage:

  6. I have driven for more than 55 years with no violation whatsoever . I made a trip to Morrison and was ticketed wrongfully . In fact the officer changed the story 3 times .

    It is sad that cities take advantage of motorists to generate revenue . Before, they got away with it but now people are empowered through internet and as we have witnessed governments in third world countries are actually toppled because of internet . These cities are making very HUGE mistake by ticketing innocent motorists as now the news travel amongst us rapidly and will impact the cities negatively . So now me and all of my friends will never go to Morrison .

    Thanks for your article and wish I had read it sooner

  7. This is legalized highway robbery. I was just hit with a $428 speeding ticket in Richmond Ca. I can’t even remember when I got the last speeding ticket before this one.

  8. There’s should be some investigating into the Sheriff’s patrol in Golden Gate Canyon off of Hwy 93 in Gilpin county.
    The sheriff and deputies there ticket people for allegedly doing 50 in the 35 zone through the canyon.
    I know several people that got the 50 in a 35 ticket there, and funny thing is, they never show the radar reading. Seems ’50 in a 35′ is the standard ticket that the deputies give out.

    SCAM!

    I never travel up that canyon anymore. Gilpin sheriff is just making revenue for their department.

  9. My wife and I just had a horrible experience yesterday with the Morrison police force. On our way to a show at Red Rocks they had set up some form of ticket trap along a small stretch of 93. Thus is just outside of town and a small road with a 25 mph speed limit. Whe I pulled over to the side of the road a went into a small ditch and hit a Rick which punctured my right front tire. In some state of defense, the office aggressively asked me why I would drive into a ditch! Well, not knowing the road and wanting to move away from traffic for both our safety, moving to the side was the prudent thing to do. There was no ticket issued but the officer provided no help in assisting my wife and I to get the tire fixed because he had to return to ticketing as many people as possible along that small stretch of road. While I spent 2 hours getting the tire changed including walking back into town for the right tools we witnessed 15 stops along that small stretch of road. No help to us and certainly not a safety issue – clearly a small town revenue generating machine. I’m embarrassed for that police force, truly. I guess “serve and protect” has been replaced in Morrison with “write tickets for revenue”.

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