Q: Why doesn’t my town get to keep the money collected from traffic tickets, instead of it all going to the state?
A: It’s a common misconception that law enforcement pulls people over because they want your money.
“I really feel like it’s a money grab,” said Erin Plummer of Cape Elizabeth, who estimates being pulled over nearly 10 times since receiving her driver’s license in the mid-1990s.
Plummer was pulled over by the South Portland Police Department in March and handed a $180 ticket for having an expired registration and inspection sticker and failure to produce evidence of insurance. But what Plummer didn’t know was that the fines all go to the state. South Portland didn’t get anything.
That’s not true in some other states, but it’s the way it’s been done in Maine since at least 1921.
As outlined in Maine law, the revenue from traffic infractions goes to the state’s General Fund to pay for all kinds of state operations and programs. A fraction of the revenue – 6 percent – is put into a state fund to compensate municipalities and counties for law enforcement services at court proceedings. Also, a portion of the revenue from violations involving trucks and trailers is dedicated to the state’s Highway Fund.
The Maine Judicial Branch reports that traffic infraction fines generated an estimated $5.6 million in state revenue in 2020, a decline from $7.5 million in 2019 that was attributed to the pandemic. It reported 56,221 traffic infractions in 2020 compared to 75,522 in 2019.
Traffic offenses include speeding, but less than 30 mph over the limit; failure to stop at a stop sign or red light; expired registration; and texting while operating a motor vehicle. The average cost of a ticket for driving 1 to 9 mph over the speed limit is $114. If you’re caught speeding 15 to 19 mph over the speed limit, you’ll be handed a $170 ticket. The faster you’re driving, the more it will cost you.
William Gribbin of Yarmouth was pulled over for alleged speeding on Interstate 295 by a state trooper in an unmarked vehicle. He contested the ticket in court and paid about a $100 fine.
“It never occurred to me what happens to that money after they take it,” Gribbin said. “I never thought about it. Perhaps I was just relieved to be done with it and get out of there.”
Many people believe there’s a financial incentive for law enforcement officers to pull people over. Unlike in Maine, traffic tickets are a significant source of revenue for cities and towns in some parts of the country. It’s likely why people assume the officer writing your ticket just wants your money.
The Maine Legislature long ago determined that the funds collected from traffic tickets should go to the state’s General Fund as a matter of public policy.
“The benefit of traffic violations revenue going to the state rather than municipalities is that it eliminates perverse incentives for towns to stop motorists just to generate local funds,” said Secretary of State Shenna Bellows. “Maine has a long practice of revenue sharing to return a significant portion of overall revenues to the municipalities to support local services including law enforcement.”
According to documents provided by the Maine State Law and Legislative Reference Library, the statute was originally enacted by the 18th Legislature in 1921. Sections 92 and 93 of the law state that the “disposition of all motor vehicle fees,” including money received by the secretary and court jurisdiction of violations and fines, “shall be turned over to the treasurer of state.”
The law has seen several changes over the years, including significant revisions in 1930, 1944 and 1954. Back then, Maine statutes were codified every several years. Since 1965, the statutes have been updated every year with pocket parts. But the law has stayed true to its original intent for a century.
Lawmakers have made efforts to change the law through the years that would have shared the revenue with cities and towns. In 2015, the Legislature considered a bill to split traffic violation fines 50-50 between the state and the municipality where the offense occurred. The bill was sponsored by Rep. Stanley Short Jr., D-Pittsfield, who submitted it on behalf of a constituent who believes that “towns should receive and benefit from some of the money from the infraction.”
Around 2000, the Maine Chiefs of Police Association proposed a similar idea to allocate a portion of the state’s traffic infraction fines to police departments. The proposal was defeated.
“We, as an association, argued our point with the Legislature until we were blue in the face,” said Edward J. Tolan, executive director of the association. “We were flatly denied.”
According to the Judicial Branch’s 2020 report, the Maine Criminal Justice Academy received $534,775, or 1.9 percent of the funds. The Law Enforcement Reimbursement Fund, which pays for officers to help prosecute court cases, received $50,825, or 0.2 percent of the funds.
Tolan, retired chief of the Falmouth Police Department, said a justifiable portion of ticket fines should go to the Maine Criminal Justice Academy, and back to police departments to purchase traffic safety enforcement equipment such as radars and speed display trailers. He said despite what many believe, police departments don’t have a quota.
“I used to say to people, ‘Folks, you don’t understand. We don’t see a penny of this. It all goes to the state,’” Tolan said. “People will say you guys got a quota. I guarantee you in my two departments there was no quota system. I used to tell my officers, ‘I want to see you out there stopping cars. What you do once you stop the car – verbal warning, written warning, summons – it’s up to you to justify that.’ There’s no quota here. But I want people to see that our police officers are out there doing their job enforcing traffic safety.”