Dallas County constables' ticketing collects funds, critics

04:02 PM CDT on Sunday, October 25, 2009

By ED TIMMS and KEVIN KRAUSE / The Dallas Morning News
For several weeks, Will Hartnett watched deputy constables work a location near Woodall Rodgers Freeway, issuing traffic tickets "by the bushel." Similar scenes have played out elsewhere in Dallas County.
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Hartnett, a Republican state representative from Dallas, is concerned with what he sees as a "dramatic expansion" of constables' duties. Constituents, he said, are upset about constables "setting up speed traps and stop-sign traps" more to write a lot of tickets than to enforce traffic laws.
"There's a difference between enforcement and traps," he said.
Traffic enforcement by constables is praised by some community leaders as a public service that makes Dallas County roads safer. But for a county that relies heavily on fines and fees to pay the bills, such energetic traffic enforcement also is an important revenue stream especially during an economic downturn. And traffic enforcement has contributed to an unprecedented expansion of constables' operations.
Some justice of the peace courts also are helping to get money from errant motorists into the county's coffers as quickly as possible. They do so by offering deferred disposition with a probationary period of just a day for some traffic offenses. If offenders complete the probationary period without another offense, the traffic violation stays off their record.
Such practices have produced results.
Constables are responsible for the majority of traffic cases that end up in JP courts. Revenue from traffic cases in JP courts was about $7.3 million in 2003. It topped $25.8 million in 2008 an increase of more than 250 percent.
Constables do not directly benefit financially from traffic-enforcement revenue, but new traffic positions approved by the Commissioners Court have contributed significantly to the expansion of their offices.
The number of deputy constables dedicated to traffic enforcement has gone from zero in 1995 to 76 today more than half of the positions added to constables' offices during that time. Once virtually invisible to the general public, constables now are routinely seen making traffic stops throughout Dallas County
But controversy has accompanied that growth. Some Dallas residents complain about the tactics used by constables to enforce traffic laws and about county commissioners' appetite for revenue derived from fines and fees.
"It was a money deal," said Duncanville Mayor Pro Tem Grady Smithey, a longtime critic of constable traffic enforcement. "They wanted to do more than they could with what money that the county Commissioners Court was willing to grant them."
Questions also have been raised about the level of oversight governing constables' actions and the short-term deferred dispositions for traffic offenders that seem geared more for revenue production than protecting the public.
Traffic enforcement repeatedly has embroiled constables in controversy, in Dallas County and elsewhere in the state.
An investigation by The Dallas Morning News revealed problems with the unsupervised impounding of thousands of vehicles in Constable Precincts 1 and 5, a practice that also is being examined by state authorities and the FBI. What happened to many of those vehicles remains a mystery.
The vehicles under scrutiny were impounded after traffic stops. Throughout the county, the number of vehicles towed after traffic stops by Dallas County deputy constables has increased dramatically in recent years.
Precinct 5 Constable Jaime Cortes' policy of filing traffic cases in only one of the two justice of the peace courts at the Beckley Courthouse in Oak Cliff the outgrowth of a feud with Judge Luis Sepulveda recently put him at odds with County Judge Jim Foster and two commissioners.
Two incidents in June involving traffic stops that led to high-speed chases illustrated a significant gap between the chase policies of Dallas County constables and many area police departments.
Constables authorize chasing fleeing motorists for traffic violations and any other criminal infractions. Dallas police, by contrast, allow the pursuit only of violent felony suspects to protect the public from the risk of collisions and to limit liability.
In the East Texas community of Tenaha, a Shelby County constable is among several law-enforcement officials accused in an ongoing federal lawsuit of targeting minorities during traffic stops. And a constable in Travis County set off a controversy in May when he used a Taser stun gun on a 72-year-old woman after a traffic stop.

Partners at times

The Dallas County Commissioners Court has frowned on some of the efforts by constables to expand their law-enforcement duties, such as the creation of tactical teams. But it has contributed to the growth of constables' offices by funding additional traffic-enforcement positions.
University of North Texas Chancellor Lee Jackson, who served as Dallas County judge from 1987 to 2002, said the court initially had concerns about a backlog of warrants when constables first expressed an interest in starting traffic-enforcement programs.
"What the constables would say is, 'Look, if you want to provide us a whole lot more staffing, we can whittle down this warrant backlog,' " he said. " 'But here's a revenue opportunity. Our department could actually do a public service and achieve revenue.' "
Without taking people off warrant service, the additional personnel dedicated to traffic enforcement, commissioners were told, "would more than pay for themselves."
Jackson said there were to be ground rules: Constables would enforce traffic only with the written approval of the city in which it would occur, and they would not get additional personnel for traffic enforcement unless the commissioners agreed to put that in the budget and found the funds for it.
"We didn't want clashes between police departments and constable offices over who was skimming the cream ... doing traffic enforcement in high-traffic areas, taking out large volumes of revenue that were being diverted from municipal courts, and so forth," Jackson said.
But there was friction from the start.
In 1999, as a direct result of traffic enforcement by Dallas County constables, state Rep. Yvonne Davis, D-Dallas, introduced a bill requiring that municipalities must request assistance from a constable in writing. Officials representing Duncanville and DeSoto were listed as witnesses in favor of the legislation. The bill died.
Smithey, the Duncanville mayor pro tem, has expressed reservations about constable traffic enforcement from the start. He said that constables "don't need to be duplicating our traffic enforcement."
"We don't want their help," Smithey said. "We want to do our own patrolling, and we've been pretty proactive in trying to do things correctly."
Hartnett, the Dallas state representative, said he understood that constables' traffic enforcement originally was concentrated in school zones because police departments purportedly did not have enough resources.
"I think most people would agree that school zones are places that need enforcement to protect the children," he said. "But constables have used that widely accepted good purpose to expand their force to move into unlimited traffic enforcement anywhere in the county."
The Sheriff's Department also has expanded its traffic duties. The department is gradually taking over freeway patrol duties from cities in the county. The idea was pitched to the city of Dallas and others several years ago as a way to clear accidents faster and allow city police officers to spend more time patrolling.
Since the expansion began in 2004, traffic-ticket revenue from sheriff's deputies has increased 21 percent, to $6.9 million last year, county records show.
The growth in traffic enforcement has its supporters. Some community leaders praise constables for their willingness to respond when speeding drivers and other traffic scofflaws put others at risk. And there are other benefits.
Precinct 3 Chief Deputy Constable Craig McKnight said that many people don't understand that traffic stops aren't strictly just about traffic enforcement.
"It is utilized to stop the guy who just performed a burglary, drug operations a lot of those things are found off traffic stops," he said.
DeSoto City Manager Jim Baugh acknowledged that there was friction many years ago. But over the last four or five years, he said, "we've really not had an issue with the constables."
Precinct 3 Constable Ben Adamcik said he has a good working relationship with the Dallas Police Department and that his deputies who work traffic enforcement even have DPD frequencies on radios in their patrol cars. It's not unusual for Dallas police to ask for a constable to assist them, he said.

The court's role

Dallas County's justice of the peace courts play an integral role in the constable's traffic enforcement. If constables are the enforcers, JPs are the collectors.
Dallas County relies more on fines and fees for revenue than any other large Texas county. Property taxes, the staple of local government budgets, account for only 49 percent of Dallas County's revenue. In other large counties, taxes are between 60 percent and 70 percent of revenue.
The fees and fines allow Dallas County to maintain the second-lowest tax rate among counties in the state. The downside, however, is that fines and fees can fluctuate more during economic downturns.
But Dallas County officials are always looking for new ways to collect.
About a year ago, at least two justices of the peace began offering one-day deferred disposition to clear constable traffic cases and collect money much faster. Such a short probationary period is unusual in Texas.
The law allows a maximum term of 180 days, but there is no minimum.
Deferred disposition, given only for Class C misdemeanors, is similar to deferred adjudication, which applies to more serious charges. You promptly pay court costs and an administrative fee that isn't more than what the fine would be, stay out of trouble for 24 hours and the case is dismissed and doesn't appear on your driving record.
It's up to the judge whether to offer it, and most judges have eligibility requirements.
Judge Al Cercone, a north Dallas justice of the peace, said defendants in his court must be 25 or older, cannot have multiple violations in their driving history and must have proof of insurance and a valid driver's license, registration and inspection sticker.
Cercone said the program is successful.
"It's a more efficient way of doing business, and it's less burdensome on my staff," he said. "It's a win-win deal."
About 60 percent of people with traffic citations take advantage of 24-hour deferred disposition, Cercone said.
He added that it improves his collection rate and that people like it. Cercone disagrees with critics who say the program is geared to generate revenue.
"It does, but it's an ancillary benefit," he said, stressing that the main goal is to enforce traffic laws.
Ron Stretcher, the county's criminal justice director, said 24-hour deferred disposition fits into the county's philosophy.
"Clearly, with our citations our intent is for persons to pay what they owe," he said. "And there are a variety of mechanisms under the law to maximize collections."
The county wants to increase the efficiency of collections, which pay for the officers and courts that provide safer streets and school safety zones, he said.
"Dallas County believes very strongly in user pay. And you are a user in that system when you violate traffic laws," Stretcher said.
Texas Tech University law professor Charles Bubany, an authority on Texas criminal procedure, said that judges like to think that they're engaged in rehabilitation and deterrence, but that traffic enforcement is "basically a revenue collection device."
And as a general proposition, he said, "there are ways to avoid convictions that people who have some wealth and some sophistication can use." The 24-hour deferred disposition offered by Dallas County, he said, appears to be one of those.
Sy Shamsie, an attorney in The Woodlands near Houston, recently found out about deferred dispositions after he was ticketed in Dallas County by a deputy constable. The deferred disposition, he said, provides an incentive not to fight a ticket. He said he believes that collecting money, not public safety, is the intent.
"They're just saying, 'Write me a check' " he said. "They've looking for any way to just generate revenue. That's the easiest way to do it."
COMING MONDAY: Reducing crime or mission creep?