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(iStockphoto via Getty Images)
(iStockphoto via Getty Images)

Southern California drivers who roll through stop signs in mountain parks can receive letters that look like traffic tickets. The citations come from a government agency, demand $100, and threaten penalties for nonpayment. But the notices are not what they seem.

The fine print clarifies that the mailed citations are “not issued for any violation of any provision of the California Vehicle Code.” This means people who ignore the lookalike traffic tickets face no legal consequences. The Department of Motor Vehicles will not assess points and insurance companies will not raise rates.

The Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority, which launched the automated stop sign enforcement program in 2007, can only report scofflaws to debt collection agencies, potentially affecting credit scores. Most vehicle owners pay to avoid the hassle—even if they do not realize the true situation.

The agency issues about annually—nearly 47 per day—using seven cameras in four Los Angeles County parks along the Santa Monica Mountains: Temescal Gateway, Marvin Braude Mulholland Gateway, Top of Topanga, and Franklin Canyon. About 11,000 vehicle owners pay each year, generating $1.1 million in annual revenue.

The numbers have been higher in the past. During one 18-month stretch, the agency cranked out —nearly 64 per day—and pulled in $2 million.

Pseudo traffic enforcement can be big business. And nobody can stop it.

State lawmakers give the agency permission to collect fines and fees in the California Public Resources Code. And when a California Court of Appeal reviewed the automated enforcement program in 2015, it the scheme. Since then, the agency has posted yellow warning signs, alerting drivers to nearby “video monitoring.” Everything now runs on cruise control.

Santa Monica resident Andrew Rice wants to put the brakes on the scheme, which he says is motivated by profit. “It’s set up like a turnstile to generate money,” he KTLA 5 ɫ̳. “It’s a money machine for the park.”

The Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority disagrees. It insists it only cares about safety, and the seven-figure income it receives from the cameras is just a convenient byproduct.

and see through this lie. Setting up cameras to record petty violations is about revenue, they argue. Redflex Traffic Systems, the for-profit vendor that runs the program, exists for no other purpose. And governments around the world are happy to split the proceeds.

Once agencies start abusing fines and fees, they often have few restraints. The result can be “taxation by citation,” which occurs when governments use police power to raise revenue rather than solely to protect the public.

from our public interest law firm, the Institute for Justice, shows hidden costs when agencies give in to this temptation. The first casualty can be goodwill. Residents with recent citations report lower levels of trust in public officials and institutions than residents without, suggesting agencies that use code enforcement for revenue can undermine cooperation in their communities.

Hikers who visit Southern California parks might be less inclined to return after receiving a citation in the mail. And they might be less inclined to support park programs. “I’m the kind of person who might have donated money to them,” Rice told KTLA 5 ɫ̳. “And I never would now.”

Additional problems surface if vehicle owners try to contest their citations. Not being in the vehicle at the time of the alleged infraction is not a defense. Tickets go to the registered owner, not the driver.

People who want a hearing anyway must request it within 21 days and make an of the full amount of the citation or get a hardship waiver. If they clear these hurdles, they do not appear before a neutral judge. They face a hearing officer appointed by their accuser.

Traditional court rules do not apply. The ranger who issued the ticket does not have to appear. And the video evidence is presumed infallible. Vehicle owners can appeal to state court, but legal costs can quickly outweigh a $100 fine.

The Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority could fix these problems by halting the fake traffic enforcement. More broadly, all California agencies should end taxation by citation. Policing should be about safety, not money.

Diana Simpson is an attorney and Daryl James is a writer at the Institute for Justice in Arlington, Va.

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