The small town of Campo sits just eight miles north of the Colorado-Oklahoma border. It’s right on the highway, and the U.S. Census estimates the population is 107.
“We’re losing people all the time,” says Dennis Smith, a Campo resident. “It’s getting smaller and smaller and smaller.”
The few businesses that do exist are a hair salon, a gas station and a small diner. The town collects zero local sales tax, but residents still enjoy a public school and a swimming pool. Most of those things are paid by revenue from tickets.
“Campo thrives on tickets. It does,” says Campo police officer Brad Viner. In 2013, tickets generated more than $300,000 for Campo, or 93 percent of the town’s total revenue. City officials say that Campo needs that revenue or the town could die. Viner says there’s an even more important reason.
Dennis Smith passes out pamphlets that explain bankruptcy to townsfolk.
“We have look at the fact that, if a traffic crash does happen, it can be devastating to a family that lives here or a family traveling through here,” Viner says.
Several hours north of Campo sits the town of Mountain View. Mountain View borders Denver, Wheat Ridge and the small town of Lakeside. It’s only six blocks wide and three blocks deep, but it’s home to a couple of major roadways. In 2013, ticket revenue here accounted for more than half of the city’s budget.
“I don’t look at it as revenue, to be perfectly honest with you,” says Mountain View Mayor Jeff Kiddie. “Do we slow people down? Yes, we do. And isn’t that what traffic enforcement is all about?”
Mountain View police don’t write that many tickets for speeding. They’re for things like failing to wear a seatbelt or tinted windows. About 300 were for “obstructed view” — like having dice in the mirror. Obstructed view tickets made headlines last year when a local TV station reported Mountain View had more obstructed view citations than Denver, Boulder and Aurora combined.
“We haven’t done anything illegal, haven’t done anything wrong,” Kiddie says. “We’re very careful about what tickets we write and that our officers are doing what they should be doing.”
But Ashlee Lucero, a 23-year-old single mother from nearby Thornton, was stopped in Mountain View, and doesn’t think the police were doing the right thing.
“It’s just money, money, money here,” Lucero says. “I got pulled over; they said that my temp tags were expired, but they weren’t expired, so they wrote me a ticket for a defective tire.”
Campo police officer Brad Viner
The police reports states that the officer verified Lucero’s tags were up to date but then noticed a “gash” in her tire — and wrote the $80 ticket. Lucero says she couldn’t pay all at once, so she went to court.
After all the court fees and payment fines, Lucero ended up owing $230 total.
“The problem is that we have police incentivized to basically throw the 4th Amendment out the window and stop people on the basis of profit,” says Ezekiel Edwards, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “As people look at this issue more closely, we’re going to find this problem in many more places.”
At least six states have some laws that cap revenue from fines — or at least require an audit if the town reaches or exceeds the cap. U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, a Democrat from Missouri, wants a 30 percent ticket cap nationwide.
“If it goes to the floor, it’s going to pass, overwhelmingly,” Cleaver says. The congressman announced his bill in March — but he says he’s been unable to attract a Republican co-sponsor.
“I don’t think it’s the purview of the state or the federal government to determine those standards,” says Sam Mamet, a spokesman for Colorado cities and towns at the Colorado Municipal League. He believes police enforcement of traffic laws should be left up to individual communities.
“That is in the electorate and the voters in the communities to decide,” Mamet says. “And if it becomes a contentious or a controversial issue, I can assure you that the city council or the town board will hear about it.”
Altogether, Colorado’s cities and towns collected more than $120 million in ticket revenues in 2013. For most towns, average revenues were close to four percent of their total budget.
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the town of Lakeside. The text has been updated.
We’re here to help you navigate this changed world and economy.
Our mission at Marketplace is to raise the economic intelligence of the country. It’s a tough task, but it’s never been more important.
In the past year, we’ve seen record unemployment, stimulus bills, and reddit users influencing the stock market. Marketplace helps you understand it all, will fact-based, approachable, and unbiased reporting.
Generous support from listeners and readers is what powers our nonprofit news—and your donation today will help provide this essential service. For just $5/month, you can sustain independent journalism that keeps you and thousands of others informed.