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Matthew J. Parker: Taxation by Citation


Police car sheriff at night with flashing light. istockphoto

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Grover Norquist is responsible for the death of Daunte Wright. So is every other Republican (and not a few Democrats) who have signed on to Norquist’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge. 

Wright was pulled over for a traffic violation in the city of Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, on April 11, 2021. When it was discovered that he had a misdemeanor warrant, he tried to flee, and an officer shot and killed him when she mistook her gun for a taser.   

I can’t lay too much blame on the cop because she was ill-trained. Although she certainly bears some responsibility, it’s also Norquist’s fault. An anti-taxxer, Norquist is founder and president of Americans for Tax Reform which, since 1986, has been blackmailing politicians into pledging not to raise taxes. On anybody. For any reason.  

The collateral damage caused by the Pledge is everywhere, from crumbling infrastructure and piss poor cyber security to underfunded police and debtors’ jails. 

There’s a catch on the latter, however; jail has become the stick wielded by present-day tax collectors. On this, Norquist agrees with me, which I’ll get to presently, but for now I’ll relate my own experience with traffic courts.

Upon my fifth and final release from prison in 2002, I had a seven or eight outstanding traffic warrants out for my arrest, with fines totaling over $3000. The language printed on each warrant was clear; any peace officer, including prison guards, was obligated to take me into custody, and those letters of the law should have prevented me from walking out of custody. 

They didn’t.

I was puzzled; was indeed terrified that a bevy of police from multiple jurisdictions would be waiting outside to arrest me in that Arizona state prison parking lot.

They weren’t. 

Confused but free, clarification came on my first visit to one of half-a-dozen-odd traffic courts: They wanted their money. Needed their money because the Pledge dictates that capital raised through new taxes anathema to conservative values. As a result, thousands of cities and even states had little choice but to seek other avenues of revenue. Traffic tickets, as it turns out, are a dandy one. 

C. Jarrett Dieterle, in a piece entitled “How America turned into a gigantic speed-trap,” put’s it succinctly; “90 percent of U.S. mayors are seeking new revenue from sources other than traditional taxes…. The attractiveness of tickets and fines as revenue generators is underscored by the fact that most people who receive tickets simply pay the fine.” 

We pay because courts have made fighting a ticket more trouble than it’s worth, and therein lies the foundation of the functionality of crime. Turns out crime does pay, and quite handsomely to some – from the prison industrial complex to obsolete vice cops to the DE-fucking-A, crime creates jobs, and lots of them. It was fairly recently, however, that local governments began making up for the shortfall brough about by tax cuts for the wealthy through broken taillights and moving violations.  

It wasn’t always this way. Was a time when traffic tickets were geared toward public safety, and with good reason. Because of the high cost of heroin, I drove illegally between prison sentences. The difference was that, during each of my first four stays in stir, I’d gather a list of my outstanding traffic warrants, write each court individually, explain that I was doing x amount of years and, like clockwork, judges would give me time served on the ticket(s).

Judges know, of course, that addicts rarely pay their traffic fines. And because they don’t, the tickets often blossom into more tickets – an unpaid civil offense like Failure to Come to a Complete Stop allows most states to suspend the license of the offender who, when pulled over again, has now committed a crime, Driving on a Suspended License, which carries a heftier fine and the possibility of jail time. Failure to pay that one results in a warrant. Most offenders have little choice but to continue to drive – think how handicapped you’d be if they suddenly pulled your license – and continue to pile on fines. 

Now apply the same formula to folks who are not addicts, who just need to get to work and had every intention of paying that Failure to Signal ticket, “but rent came due and the youngest got a toothache and the damn car ain’t running so good and needs tires on top of that.”  

Add felonies and you have my life for close to two decades, during which time the rules of the road ordained that prison was not only a place to clean up mentally and physically for several years from the ravages of heroin addiction, but so too legally. Having warrants quashed allowed me to get out with a clean slate.   

The shift from “time served” to “pay us our money” came in the realization that those in jail or prison are appalling revenue raisers. Such offenders are not only not fattening coffers but are conversely forcing cities and states to pony up for each offender’s respective incarceration. Worse still is that the original civil offense has likely still not been paid, leaving the license still suspended, with the possibility of the entire fiasco starting all over again the minute the miscreant chooses to operate a motor vehicle with his or her perpetually revoked driving privileges.

Because of this, both judges and prosecutors are reluctant to sentence traffic offenders to jail, no matter how many times they fail to appear and/or fail to pay the initial civil and subsequent criminal fine(s). The hope being, of course, that they will somehow evolve into reliable tax-proceed surrogates. Unless defendants, Norquist-like, absolutely refuse to pay their fines and demand they be sent to jail instead, judges and prisons will keep letting them out even when, especially when, the fines accrue into mounds of outstandingly expensive arrest warrants. 

Given this, the zeal of cops to take into custody those with misdemeanor warrants – traffic or otherwise – is, if you’ll pardon the pun, unwarranted. 

Nor have I overlooked felony warrants, as in the case of sheriff’s deputies serving both search and arrest warrants on Andrew Brown Jr. in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, on April 21, 2021, and not surprisingly shooting him dead in the process. The biased dictates of warrants in general and our drug laws in particular (consider Breonna Taylor being murdered in her own home by militarized narcos) are evident when one considers the fact that zero law enforcement officials have served neither search nor arrest warrants on a single member of the Sackler family. In the United States, warrants for drugs, like broken windows, are both geographically and selectively served.  

The Sacklers founded Purdue Pharma, maker of OxyContin, and are responsible for more lethal drugs killing more Americans than any street-level dealers doing or having done time. In 2001, there were less than 20,000 deaths from drug overdoses in the United States. Today we’re closer to 100,000, thanks mostly to the Sacklers, yet not a single one of them has spent so much as an hour in jail.

I’m guessing they pay their traffic tickets.  

But back to our ad hoc traffic cops, their respective courts, and why they stopped giving time served to felons for misdemeanor traffic offenses. While locked up in state or federal prison on unrelated charges, judges were glad to clear my outstanding warrants from their dockets. Since the Norquist-led, Taxpayer Protection Pledge gained popularity, however, this has slowly been phased out. On my last beef I petitioned all the pertinent courts for time served and was stupefyingly ignored. 

The result was that, after my release, I had to pay the entire $3,000+ dollars to drive legally again. Nobody cared how much of a burden this placed on a newly released felon, or that it took me eight months to pay in full, and that with my first student loan. They only cared about the cash, which raises another problem; only the poor and middleclass suffer under this system. The wealthy can pay all the fines hurled their way with alacrity and never have to see the inside of a cell, grotesquely distorting the concept of equal protection. 

The Institute for Justice put out a paper entitled “The Price of Taxation by Citation,” which examines this new normal: “To the extent city leaders use code enforcement for reasons other than public safety, they should consider that they may be harming their communities. What they may gain in revenue, they may lose in trust and cooperation, the very foundations of a healthy community.” Under such straits, the essence of justice reform is near impossible if our police are assigned to hound poor people for money like, well, like fucking tax collectors. 

Indeed, Norquist actually acknowledges this. “The Chicago Tribune” published a commentary by Norquist in June of 2020, in which he agrees with my assessment; “A key reason Ferguson [Ferguson, Missouri is where police shot and killed an unarmed Michael Brown in August of 2014] police were despised is that the politicians had turned the police into tax collectors for the city. Not sales taxes and income taxes, but fines, fees, forfeitures and traffic tickets.” 

Norquist is right, of course, but he’s failed to mention that, if they can’t raise revenue with taxes or tickets, what’s a municipality to do?

I actually like Norquist, and not only because of the above quote. He’s affable, pro-immigration and, with a Muslim wife, a fierce defender of Islam. But he has a blind spot – not uncommon in zealots – that in my view handicaps him. “My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub,” is perhaps his most famous quote. 

Sounds to me he’s also for abolishing the police, but only because he doesn’t want to pay them, and he’s not alone. According to Forbes, the top ten states with the lowest police salaries, ranging from $36,290 to $47,340, respectively, are: Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, South Carolina, West Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Kentucky, and North Carolina. All are red except perhaps Georgia. Forbes also points out that “…only 16 states have police officer salaries that are higher than the national average.” 

Police in Mississippi make on average about $17.50 an hour. That’s what they pay their police officers, and that’s the average. The low is borderline criminal as well as a direct result of Norquist’s Taxpayer Protection Pledge.  

But if taxes could be raised, imagine what we might do with them? Paying police better, for one, and training them in the use of weapons and de-escalation. And a good salary is likely to draw level-headed candidates. That combined with intense firearm instruction will lessen police propensity to shoot-to-kill any number of dark-skinned bodies that so much as flinch.  

More money could also cover less intensive warrant roundups. I’ve had outstanding warrants for months or even years at a time. Nobody ever came looking for me even though I was ridiculously easy, by police standards, to find. Wright would certainly be alive today if not for that stupid warrant. 

Nor is Wright the only one to die as a result of a traffic stop – preposterously, an air freshener on his rearview; Sandra Bland, stopped, arrested, and found dead in her cell for failure to use a turn signal; Philando Castile, shot five times over a busted taillight; Walter L. Scott, shot eight times in the back because of a malfunctioning brake light; Michael Brown, executed for jaywalking. 

I could go on, of course, but you get the idea – less tax revenue equates to lousy policing and more and more of these utterly senseless killings.

And of course, Republicans still won’t budge on their pledge to not raise taxes even to pay our police more.  

I’m guessing Norquist views all this as the bathtub being half full.     


Copyright 2022 Matthew J. Parker

2 comments on “Matthew J. Parker: Taxation by Citation

  1. matthewjayparker
    December 15, 2022

    I agree, Tracy. Poorly worded on my part. I should have said underpaid police, although this point is duly noted in the piece.

    Like

  2. Tracy Abell
    December 14, 2022

    “The collateral damage caused by the Pledge is everywhere, from crumbling infrastructure and piss poor cyber security to underfunded police and debtors’ jails. ”

    Underfunded police??? If only that were true. We’re billions of dollars into police and the carceral state.

    Like

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