Peeing into the Wind: The Finances of Petty Crime

Plattsburgh, like many upstate New York Cities, has a problem, according to WPTZ via Turley.  Bars close late at night and patrons, finding themselves out in the cold, suddenly have to go.  When you have to go, you have to go.  But if you do so in public, it’s an offense.  In Plattsburgh, the happy barhoppers were cited for disorderly conduct, a state penal law infraction, below that of a crime but sufficient to levy a fine and potential imprisonment.

Now this is where most people make the mistake of thinking that cities press these issues for the money.  Because it’s a state offense, the fines imposed by local courts aren’t kept by the local government.  Instead, they are required to remit the fine to the state, which then returns a mere 5% to the city, town or village.

So in Plattsburgh, the City does all the work, using its police to locate and cite, using its prosecutors to prosecute and its courts to handle the cases.  The 5% remittance likely doesn’t come close to covering the cost, and certainly doesn’t make them any money.  Plattsburgh has had enough of it.

Currently, the city follows New York State law and charges violators with disorderly conduct if they are found urinating in public.

But Beebie said disorderly conduct is a violation, and not a stiff enough penalty. “It’s not a crime. You cannot get a permanent record for it, but you do subject yourself to confinement and a fine,” Beebie said.

And the Plattsburgh City Council decided Thursday night that they should be able to keep the fines paid by people peeing in public.

While public urination may be a plague in Plattsburgh, and I defer to the good people of Plattsburgh to explain whether this is a phenomenon peculiar to them, the concept applies more broadly to all local governments across the state.  It applies to speeding tickets and other automobile related issues under the Vehicle and Traffic Law, for example, as well. 

When small town police busily enforce these laws, often peeing off residents and those merely traversing the jurisdiction, the claim is that they are really in the process of collecting revenue rather than enforcing law.  The old speed trap issues are raised, which suggest that laws and rules are crafted as a trap for the unwary and serve no legitimate purpose other than to be the local cash cow.

Now other states may well have different situations, but in New York, local police and courts and big time money losers.  The only thing worse than having the perceived “traps” is leaving people with the sense of persecution and doing so on the taxpayers’ dime because the fines are sent elsewhere.  It’s adding insult to injury.

The claim has long been the enacting local laws, as Plattsburgh has chosen to do, to avoid the cash obligation to the state, will make the state very angry with the locals.  For this reason, most localities don’t try to enact their own, parallel laws, so that those stopped within their jurisdiction for infractions can be prosecuted under local laws rather than state laws, and the local government can keep 95% of the fines.  What exactly the state would do about it, or can do about it, is never spoken.

Giving thought to this question, I have trouble understanding how the state can do anything about local government enacting a local law to address a local law enforcement issue.  Municipal home rule allows local governments to take those actions necessary to address their needs. It doesn’t require the state’s approval, except in certain unrelated instances, and the legitimacy of dealing with local issues, at local expense, provides a rational basis for handling the problem in a way that addresses local needs.

Still, this threat, that keeps local government’s in check, and keeps the fines flowing toward Albany, serves some very good purposes.  It prevents local government from enacting some of the dopier laws that local governments, lacking the competencies to grasp and the legal counsel to construct, might otherwise enact.   It prevents a crazy quilt of tiny jurisdictional laws that would make a Georgia Sheriff during Reconstruction seem utterly reasonable. 

And it prevents everyone’s worst nightmare, local governments realizing that they could create their own little cash machines by crafting some bizarre quirk, like a 55 mph road changing to 10 mph while passing through East Chazy for 27 feet.  For anyone attuned to the thought processes of local government’s, coming up with bizarre and ridiculous schemes is hardly a stretch.

As for Plattsburgh, it seems only right that they should get to keep the 95% of fines levied for public urination.  If Albany has a problem with that, it should just let its bars stay open past 10 p.m.

One comment on “Peeing into the Wind: The Finances of Petty Crime

  1. Windypundit

    Libertarians like me are supposed to hate the feds, but it’s pretty easy to get sick of the local governments too. Between the state, the county, and the city or town you’re in, there sure are a lot of laws we’re supposed to obey.

    The worst situations are an evil combination of local fines and state-wide reporting, either because the state allows the locals to keep a large share of the fines or because the state requires some local crime to be reported to the state. The latter is often the case with traffic citations, creating a situation where the locals are essentially paid a bounty to help the state revoke your license.

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