The Washington Times reports that three suburbs of Washington, D.C. plus Virginia Beach "are preparing to stimulate public spending with new red-light camera programs. This is part of a push to fill government budget shortfalls by ramping up tickets for moving violations."
It's no news that states and municipalities count on fines for infractions of regulations, ostensibly designed for public safety, as cash cows. But many people are not aware how big a business this is, and how it has become a form of stealth tax. And, for any leftists who chanced on this site, you should be especially aggrieved — it is a highly regressive tax, stomping the poor more heavily than the rich.
With the possible exception of "gotcha!" red light cameras, most of the regulations are reasonable, and in better financial times the discretion of police added a further check against abuse. But with the country's economic graveyard spiral continuing, and dragging localities with it, governments are relying on fines to make up what they don't collect in tax revenue from people and businesses no longer making money.
I had my own epiphany on stealth taxation recently when I was clocked for having an inspection sticker on my car that was out of date. By six days. I was in violation of the law and the officer had every right to issue me a ticket. Had it been for, say, $25 I would have considered justice done. In fact, the fine was nearly four times that, which I don't think is reasonable. It was official larceny.
Here is a list of violations of traffic and similar offenses in Fairfax Country, Virginia (one of the locations that will soon have cameras seeing red) along with their associated fines and "processing fees." The processing fees are in many cases way in excess of the fines. It figures that the state or county government set the penalties "too low" for the authorities' needs, so they topped up the fines with these additional fees.
Some examples of what you can be nicked for in Fairfax County: "Drinking in public" (aren't restaurants and bars public places?), $97; "Trespassing at [sic] cemetery at night," waking the dead I guess, $107; "Impeding traffic by slow speed," $92; "Causing or permitting vehicle to be driven more than 13 hours in a 24-hour period" (depriving the vehicle of its rest?), $92; "Failure to obey traffic lights," $162 — this is why the revenue hawks love red light cameras; "Failure to dim headlights on parked vehicle" (If your lights drain your battery, we'll drain your wallet!), $82; etc., etc.
I am not suggesting that improper driving should be tolerated, and a fine commensurate with the act uses Professor Edward L. Thorndike's Law of Effect to drive home (pun intended) the lesson. But when the fines degenerate into highway robbery (pun intended again — help! How can I stop doing this?), a generalized, cynical disrespect for the law is one consequence.
A republican form of government speeds into a danger zone (ultimate fine and processing fee, unlimited) when it starts to look on its citizens not as people to whom it has a duty of care, but as marks who are there for bureaucrats to shake down. Should that happen on a wide scale, as looks likely in the economic debacle, we will lose something even more important than money.