With traffic fine up, Pa. officers' use of 'nice guy tickets' plunges
What was once a traffic ticket police officers could write to cut offending drivers a break is now a multimillion-dollar missed opportunity for Pennsylvania's mass transit agencies.
The Port Authority of Allegheny County, SEPTA and other transit agencies received $15 million less from traffic-related fines in the first six months of last year than projected. The money was supposed to come from a January 2014 fine increase from $25 to $150 on citations police issued for failure to obey a traffic device, such as a sign or signal.
But that increase changed officers' willingness to issue the ticket. Officer Howard McQuillan, president of Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1, said police once called the violation “the nice guy ticket,” used instead of a more specific violation for running a stop sign or red light that adds points to a driver's license.
“It definitely did make a difference with the officers issuing the citations,” McQuillan said. “I wouldn't cite somebody for a citation that is more expensive than the actual violation.”
For drivers, the fine increase winds up being about $50 more than they would've paid before, as past surcharges were eliminated, according to PennDOT.
The state's bipartisan transportation funding bill passed in November 2013 dictated the increase. Called Act 89, the law cobbled together increases in taxes, fines and fees to raise $2.8 billion for infrastructure improvements.
Lawmakers earmarked money from the increased “traffic device” citations for capital projects at public transit agencies. Based on past citation figures, they estimated it would generate $21 million in the first six months. It produced just $6 million.
In this fiscal year's budget, lawmakers expected up to $40 million from the increase. But in the first three quarters of the fiscal year, from July 1 to March 31, it generated just $11.2 million, according to state records.
The decrease in fine revenue means the Port Authority anticipates receiving less in state funding than it expected when Act 89 passed. The agency projected receiving $103 million in Act 89 funds for this year and received just under $95 million. For fiscal year 2016, which begins in July, they are adjusting projections from $110 million to $106 million.
“There are numerous variables that impact our annual budget, including funding streams, fuel prices and health care costs, so it's essential that we remain cautious in how we spend,” spokesman Jim Ritchie said.
Pittsburgh Magisterial District Judge Richard King said he has noticed the drop-off in police officers' use of the violation as a plea bargain instead of a charge for running a red light or stop sign.
“If the officer is fine with it, the court's usually fine with it,” he said.
The year before the fine went up, police issued 330,000 traffic device citations statewide, excluding Philadelphia. In 2014, they issued about 143,000, according to data from the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts. Other traffic violations went from 853,000 in 2013 to more than 959,000 in 2014.
Pennsylvania State Police reports issuing 147,739 of the citations in 2013, and 52,163 in 2014.
Lt. Duane Fisher, who runs the traffic division at the Mt. Lebanon Police Department, predicts officers won't use the citation to give a break as often.
“You're going to see the officers and the courts try to find ways to send a message and modify people's behavior, and not bury them,” he said.
For transit agencies, the law is still a boon, said SEPTA spokesman Andrew Busch.
Despite the failure to meet projections on the traffic device citation, Act 89 allowed the agency to increase its capital budget.
“Sometimes, revenues like this can fluctuate back and forth,” Busch said. “We're not having to cut because of it.”