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Houston Municipal Courts Administration

On tickets and plea bargains

Interesting story about the municipal courts, but I’m a bit puzzled by the numbers cited.

About 22,000 traffic tickets were dismissed in a single month in Houston this summer – nearly half the number issued during that span, according to state data.

The substantial number of dismissals, which costs the city millions in lost revenue, is a result of an overburdened court system reliant on plea bargaining, according to police union officials and attorneys.

Traffic tickets are rarely dismissed because of problems caused by Houston police officers who write up the infractions, said Houston Police Officers’ Union president Ray Hunt. Instead, cases are dismissed by prosecutors who offer deals to violators, Hunt noted.

“The courts do not have the manpower, or the prosecutors, or the jurors to handle the dockets over there,” Hunt said. “The prosecutors are forced to make deals with the citizens, and dismiss some of the tickets and only charge them for others. If anybody questions the dismissals, it’s not an issue of the officers writing bad tickets or officers not showing up. It’s the prosecutors dismissing them because they have to dismiss them.”

[…]

Tickets filed in Houston municipal courts have declined from more than 1 million in 2006 to 735,841 in 2011. Budget cuts at the Houston Police Department have resulted in reduced overtime for traffic enforcement, contributing to the decline in tickets.

I wrote about the decline of non-parking citations issued by the city of Houston back in March. You can see all the raw data here. The numbers that I see there do not match what’s in that story. One possible reason for that is that the Office of Court Administration reports are for the period of September 1 to August 31, whereas the Chron story makes it sound like they’re talking calendar year. Also, the OCA report breaks down citations into different categories, while the Chron story does not specify what kind of tickets it’s talking about. While the Chron compares 2006 to 2011, I noted that the number of non-parking citations written between 2006 and 2010 was roughly the same each year, but from 2010 to 2011 there was a big drop. The story makes it sound like there was a steady decline, but that’s not what the numbers I looked at say. Finally, and perhaps more importantly, the city reported more revenue earned from citations in 2011 than it did in 2010, by a fairly significant amount – $57 million in 2006, $73 million in 2011. There’s some good discussion of this at that earlier post.

As far as the emphasis on plea bargains goes, I’m not sure why this is news. The justice system in general couldn’t operate if most cases weren’t pleaded out before ever going to trial. As HPOU’s Hunt notes, this is an efficient way for the municipal courts to operate, and neither of the defense attorneys quoted in the story – Randall Kallinen and Paul Kubosh, no shrinking violets when it comes to criticizing the city – had anything particularly negative to say about the system. I’m curious where the Chron got their numbers, but beyond that I don’t see anything remarkable here. Grits has more.

Maybe we need more tickets

Grits reads a story about the decline of traffic tickets in Dallas and does some figuring.

What’s remarkable is not just this year’s drop but the overall 39% decline since ’06-’07. Wondering if the same trend is occurring statewide, Grits pulled the total number of new, non-parking traffic cases filed in municipal courts in recent years from the Office of Court Administration’s annual reports. I was surprised to find that FY 2011 numbers reported represented a remarkable drop of more than 600,000 traffic tickets per year, more than 10%, compared to FY 2008:

Total new non-parking traffic cases filed statewide in Texas municipal courts:

2006: 5,711,966
2007: 5,581,607
2008: 5,749,780
2009: 5,684,813
2010: 5,521,029
2011: 5,148,510

Some police departments – notably Austin’s – view traffic stops as their primary anti-crime strategy, particularly in so-called “hotspots,” so I was surprised to notice that trend. It has budget implications, certainly, but more importantly, what is causing it? Are police deployment patterns changing, and if so, how and why? Perhaps the price of gas and a depressed economy are just making people drive less, which could make the trend meaningless if the economy picks back up. Perhaps Dallas’ remarkable drop explains a disproportionate share of the total. OTOH, perhaps other cities, like Big D, are scaling back traffic enforcement in tight budget times because of limited resources. Or maybe there’s something bigger going on, just as we’ve witnessed a steady drop in index crime rates over the last two decades.

Why are Texas cops writing fewer traffic tickets? What do you think is going on?

Seeing that got me to wondering about Houston, since we’re so focused on revenue these days. I went to the report table of contents and looked at the Municipal Courts summary by city for fiscal years 2004 through 2011. This is what I found.

Year Cases filed Revenue Per case ========================================== 2011 724,009 73,018,272 100.85 2010 926,110 81,460,943 87.96 2009 910,788 80,922,590 88.85 2008 909,555 82,958,342 91.20 2007 925,926 78,967,588 85.28 2006 893,563 57,302,268 64.13 2005 866,520 48,531,695 56.01 2004 785,795 48,870,197 62.19

“Cases filed” are the non-parking traffic cases, same as what Grits checked for the state as a whole. “Revenue” is for all cases, including parking and non-traffic, and “Per Case” is revenue per non-parking case, which is technically misleading since it doesn’t break revenue down by source, but it’s the best I can do. As you can see, fewer non-parking cases were filed in Houston last year than in any previous year going back to at least FY2004. As with Grits, I have no idea why that may be. (No, I’m pretty sure that the cessation of red light camera tickets has nothing to do with this. For one, those tickets were generally not adjudicated in the municipal courts, and for two the city didn’t have them for the first three fiscal years on this chart.) Clearly, some amount of revenue that could have been collected if FY2011 had been more typical was not collected. If you trust the “per case” metric, by my calculation the city could have collected about $20 million more had the 2011 case load been like the 2010 case load. That’s probably a reach – among other things, I don’t know what caused the jump in revenue from 2006 to 2007, or the jump in revenue per case from 2010 to 2011 – but I think it’s fair to say that there was some money left on the table. Let me throw this out to you guys. Any thoughts about this?

You really can go broke saving money

The state of Texas has cost itself billions of dollars over the past decade or so by doing things like cutting CHIP and thus losing out on far more federal funds than any savings achieved in the state budget. Harris County is costing itself a bunch of money in deputy overtime because of their current hiring freeze. And the city of Houston is losing revenue in the municipal courts because of a bizarre and unpopular new policy that is keeping police officers out of the courts for traffic cases most of the day. The policy was intended to reduce overtime costs, and you can guess the rest:

While the city has saved a quarter-million dollars on officer overtime in just two months, revenue at municipal court is down $2.3 million in August, September and October 2010 compared to the same three months last year.

Officers say it’s because so many cases are being reset and unresolved that fines are not being paid.

I certainly understand wanting to control overtime costs, but there’s no possible way that this makes sense. In addition to reducing revenues at a time when the city – and HPD – desperately needs them, it greatly inconveniences people who have court dates, and effectively denies them due process. One way or another, the city – and by that I really mean Mayor Parker and HPD Chief McClelland – needs to address this.

Warrants

Lots of people out there have outstanding warrants.

Nearly 2 million warrants worth more than $340 million are outstanding in the Houston area, and in most cases they’re not for hard-core criminals.

They’re for average residents who haven’t settled minor traffic and ordinance citations.

[…]

Houston alone has more than 1.2 million outstanding class C misdemeanor warrants. On average, most people have one to three active warrants. Many alleged offenders have multiple warrants because they receive a warrant for each violation on the citation, plus they get an additional warrant for failure to appear in court.

The warrants cover violations from motorists who run red lights to business owners who don’t have burglar alarm permits to residents who don’t properly handle yard waste.

Court officials estimate the warrants are worth about $300 million, which would be pumped into the city’s general fund when collected. A lot of that money, however, is not actually owed to the city until a person is found guilty.

City Councilwoman Sue Lovell said city officials are more concerned about closed cases that still have unpaid fines. She said the municipal court needs to be more aggressive about collecting fines on those cases.

It’s nice to imagine we could have $300 million more revenue available in the city’s budget, but that figure is largely an illusion. It costs money to collect those fines, especially if they get turned over to a collection agency, which will skim a percentage of what they take in off the top. Some people will put up a fight in court over what they’re owed, which costs money, and some of them will win partial or complete victories. Some people simply won’t pay up and will wind up serving jail time instead, which needless to say is costly. Some people who are willing to pay simply can’t afford it; they may wind up making a settlement, paying on a plan, or serving time instead. A better question to ask is how much could the city reasonably expect to collect when it does its next sweep. Speaking of which:

About 80 percent of Houston’s warrants are traffic-related, said Gwen Goins, spokeswoman for Houston Municipal Courts Administration. Yet, some of the city’s worst offenders are those with building code violations related to property or businesses they own. The top nine offenders each have 99 or more warrants. All but two live in the Houston area, and despite having addresses listed in court documents, none have been arrested.

Houston police officials say they target the worst offenders first when they conduct annual warrant sweeps, and they’re usually more interested in catching those involved in other illegal activity, said Assistant Chief Vicki King.

“We really want to get criminals off the street,” King said. “People who couldn’t or wouldn’t pay are not forgotten. If they get caught, they will go to jail.”

Everyone says we don’t have enough cops on the street. What do you want the cops we do have to be doing – fighting crime, or rounding up people with unpaid tickets? Annual sweeps of the biggest scofflaws make sense, but beyond a certain point it’s a waste of police resources.

There are other ways to try to get people to pay.

When people don’t show in court after 30 days, courts are required by law to flag the defendant’s name in the Texas Department of Safety database. It prevents people from renewing their driver’s license or getting a driver’s license if they don’t have one. The tool often motivates people to take care of their tickets.

Many courts send notices reminding people of their warrants. It’s a less effective alternative but sometimes triggers responses.

[…]

Annual amnesty programs and warrant sweeps continue to help clear cases, and new technology is being used to better manage cases and to catch scofflaws. Houston municipal courts, for example, are looking at flagging a defendant’s vehicle registration through the state transportation department’s database, said presiding Judge Berta Mejia.

And last year, Houston police purchased automated license plate readers that read up to 60 vehicle license plates per minute, enabling patrol officers to pull over those with warrants. In addition, police now have the ability to run credit card payments so people can settle outstanding warrants on the spot.

Cops with credit card readers seems like a strange thing at first, but it makes sense. Any time you can get someone to settle up without having to send a cop or constable to their house, or arrest them, is a win. The idea of flagging vehicle registrations came up last year in the context of unpaid red light camera fines, which naturally meant there was a certain amount of fear and loathing involved as well. I think as long as there are reasonable safeguards in place that it’s a decent idea. Again, it’s all about minimizing the cost of the collection. How else would you propose to do it?