Taxation by Citation? Exploring Local Governments’ Revenue Motive for Traffic Fines


The base fine for failure to stop at a stop sign is $35; after penalty surcharges and assessment fees, it could cost up to $238.

In 1977 California counties received 74 percent of their own-source general funds from property tax, but after Proposition 13, counties’ property tax decreased by over 50 percent. Since the passage of Proposition 13 and other constitutional constraints on local governments’ revenue authority, local governments transitioned their revenue-raising efforts from property taxes to traffic fines and surcharges. This paper uses California county data from 2004 to 2015 to test whether governments have revenue motives for traffic fines by analyzing whether governments increase traffic fines following a revenue decline. The author concluded that local governments use traffic fine revenue to offset tax revenue from the previous year. 

You can read the full text here.

Key Findings:

  • In California, the state legislature and the Judicial Council set the base fines for traffic violations and state and county governments can impose surcharges and fees.
  • The state receives roughly 50 percent of traffic fine revenue, the county gets 40 percent, and cities and other collection programs receive 10 percent.
  • California traffic fines are the highest in the country.
  • The research found a ten percentage point tax revenue loss in the previous year leads to a 40-  42 cents increase in per capita traffic fines in the current year.
  • Hispanic majority counties have higher per capita traffic fines than their counterparts.
  • Counties with high poverty rates rely more on traffic fines; a one-percentage-point poverty rate increase raises per capita traffic fines by 16 to 17 cents. 
  • Local governments with tourism are likely transferring the traffic fines burden onto out-of-town drivers; a one-percentage-point increase in the share of transient occupancy tax in local own-source revenues raises per capita traffic fines by 38 to 42 cents.
Min Su
Public Administration Review