Municipal Fines and Fees: A 50-State Survey of State Laws

This report, including an interactive map, provides a 50-state analysis of state laws that regulate municipal imposition and collection of fines and fees. The analysis is based on 52 factors, organized into 7 broad categories, that measure the extent to which state laws “prohibit, sustain, encourage or neutralize” municipal reliance on fines and fees.  The factors include, for example, whether state law caps the percentage of revenue municipalities can generate from fines and fees, whether state law requires municipalities to accept partial payment of fines and fee, and whether the state provides funding for municipal courts.  The report then ranks states based on the presence or absence of the 52 factors. The report is based on state law in 2017.

“Whether and to what extent state laws affect municipal taxation by citation is largely unknown, but anecdotal evidence suggests they could be an important policy mechanism for regulating municipalities’ fines and fees behavior.. The survey of state laws we present here offers a systematic way to diagnose the possible relationships between state policies and municipal behavior and identify potential ways by which state leaders can ensure the actions of municipalities are both legal and right.”

A Note of Caution:

A few points about the report merit mention. First, as the report itself notes, “[b]ecause the rankings reflect only states’ laws’ potential to promote fines and fees abuse relative to other states’ laws, and not municipal ordinances or actual municipal behavior, it is possible municipalities in a state may behave better—or worse—than we might expect given the rankings.” In other words, the report ranks states on what the law provides and not on whether the law is actually implemented. Second, as the report also acknowledges, many states fare well because they do not have municipal courts. (“Without municipal courts, many factors simply do not apply, resulting in [] rankings across most categories.”) Also, the tool and report do not analyze the potential for fines and fees abuse by counties or states.  Finally, the report is based on the law that existed in 2017.  State laws may have changed.  For example, the report ranks Virginia, West Virginia, and Mississippi [as three of the four worst states] with respect to driver’s license suspensions, but since 2017, all three states have enacted laws that prohibit courts from suspending licenses for unpaid fines and fees.

You can read the full text of the report here.

Key Findings
  • Out of all states, Georgia’s laws appear most conducive to excessive municipal reliance on fines and fees.
  • North Carolina ranks last, but it “owes its ranking, in large part, to its lack of municipal courts.”
  • The rankings are strongly impacted by the presence or absence of municipal courts in each state. Municipal courts often rely either on direct funding from their municipalities or on fines and fees they collect. Thus, they are susceptible to municipal pressure to collect fines and fees.
  • 28 states allow cities to create municipal courts.
  • Kentucky and Missouri are the only two states that have a firm cap on revenue generated from fines and fees.
  • 15 states do not prohibit courts from jailing people who cannot afford to pay fines and fees.
  • 21 states allow municipalities to regulate activities already regulated under state law; only two disallow the practice. 27 states have no laws in this regard, leaving open the possibility that municipalities will seek to regulate the same or similar conduct as state laws and abuse that authority to raise additional revenue.
  • Only three of the 28 states with municipal courts require them to accept partial payments of fines and fees; 13 states allow or encourage them to do so; the remaining 12 states have no relevant laws.
  • Few states require the procedural protections necessary to safeguard the rights of people prosecuted in municipal courts. Particularly lacking are notice provisions, discovery, standards of proof and jury trial availability.
  • 46 states cap the amount of the fine a municipality can impose for municipal code violations. However, some states’ ceilings are as high as $5,000 per offense.
Dick Carpenter, Richard Pochkanawala, Mindy Menjou
Institute for Justice