Where’s that traffic fine going? Law enforcement isn’t getting as much as you think

Money from traffic infractions goes to a lot of places, but only a tiny slice of it ends up with the law enforcement agency that issues the infractions.
Money from traffic infractions goes to a lot of places, but only a tiny slice of it ends up with the law enforcement agency that issues the infractions. Doug Dahl Washington County Sherrif’s Office

Question: Where does the money from a traffic ticket go?

Answer: To quote from a friend’s relationship status as described on Facebook, “It’s complicated.”

Before I could answer this question, I reviewed several charts and spreadsheets from the Washington Administrative Office of the Courts, spoke with a Budget and Judicial Impact analyst and checked in with our local courts.

Here’s the gist of what I discovered. Despite what you may have heard about police officers funding their department budget by writing traffic tickets, in Washington the money from a ticket gets divided into so many buckets that it pretty much removes any incentive any law enforcement agency has for writing tickets primarily for revenue. (We’re talking about traditional traffic enforcement here; speed and red light cameras are a whole different system, and some local governments have been willing to provide actual numbers regarding the revenue that traffic cameras generate.)

Local government does receive a portion of the fine from a traffic infraction, but when you see the breakdown it’s apparent that it’s not a massive revenue generator for the local police department. The goal of traffic enforcement is to reduce dangerous driver behavior, not to make money, at least for the local police department.

In a few circumstances the division of funds from a ticket depends on the kind of infraction the driver committed. For example, some of the money from a ticket for speeding in a school zone goes toward school zone safety. Aside from specially designated assessments for those types of infractions, traffic fines follow a formula of a base penalty plus a standard set of assessments.

Here is the breakdown for what the courts call a “generic” $136 traffic infraction:

Base Penalty: $48 – This is the amount you’ll find if you look up your infraction in the Washington Courts penalty schedule, which can create some confusion. If, for example, you received a ticket for tailgating (technically it’s called following too closely), you might look it up in the RCW to see if your actions fit the offense and notice that there is no fine amount listed. Digging further you might come across the Washington Courts penalty schedule and see $48 as the total amount for your violation and think, as you look at your $136 ticket, that you got overcharged. You didn’t.

The penalty schedule only includes the base penalty. This base penalty gets divided three ways: $23 is used to fund the Judicial Information System (JIS), the primary information system for courts in Washington. The remaining $25 is split between the state, getting $8, and the local government (not the police department) getting $17. The $17 gets further divided into the general fund and a crime victims fund.

The remainder of the $136 ticket is divided into the following categories: state general fund, auto theft prevention, emergency medical services and trauma care, legislative assessment and traumatic brain injury fund. Most of these categories are statewide, but local government receives approximately $8 from the legislative assessment. Once in the general fund, the money goes toward all kinds of government functions, hopefully including a bit for law enforcement.

I don’t mean to downplay the financial impact that a $136 ticket has on an individual. Getting a ticket is, at a minimum, financially unpleasant, and for some, a real hardship. But from a government revenue perspective it’s almost inconsequential.

For example, in Whatcom County, revenue from infractions makes up about one-half to 1 percent of the total county budget of roughly $180 million. Even if all the infraction revenue went to the law and justice portion of the county budget (about $60 million) it would hardly make a dent.

Money from traffic infractions goes to a lot of places, but only a tiny slice of it ends up with the law enforcement agency that issues the infractions.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit Ask a question.