Drivers in Houston, you’re a lot less likely to get a traffic ticket today than you were a year ago.
But don't be too happy -- the reasons why may not make you smile.
The number of traffic tickets being issued to Houston drivers has dropped off sharply from last year. That's according to a Texas Watchdog analysis of data from the Houston municipal court system, procured through the state open records laws by our partners at Local 2 Houston.
Police are writing about 25% fewer tickets lately -- for every four tickets written in August and September 2009, only three tickets were given out in August and September 2010, the data show.
But an investigation by Texas Watchdog and Local 2 suggests the dropoff in the number of tickets is connected to two other serious issues that have faced the Houston Police Department.
The first: The city’s attempts to cut down on the big overtime checks being earned by some officers purely for sitting and waiting in traffic court for their cases to be called – an age-old worry for the city’s financial managers.
The second: HPD officers repeatedly failing to show up to traffic court, something that is costing the city millions of dollars when their tickets, and the resulting fines, are dismissed.
Roughly one violation out of every seven that was processed into the Houston Municipal Court system's computers last year – the huge majority of them traffic tickets written by HPD officers -- wound up being dismissed because the prosecuting officer was a no-show, Texas Watchdog found. Some 112,000 violations were dismissed out of the 845,000 written by police officers.
While that may have made the days of some drivers, the city of Houston lost out on $25 million in fines that were dismissed because of no-show officers last year, the data showed.
That may not sound like a lot of money for a city the size of Houston, which has an annual budget of about $4 billion. But that $25 million could have saved the city from departmental budget cuts that Mayor Annise Parker called for earlier this year, including 1.5% budget cuts from the police and fire departments and 3% cuts for most other agencies -- which totaled $24.4 million.
GOOD NEWS, BAD NEWS TRAFFIC STOP
But it's not just the money involved that irks some folks. Like David Tiede.
A lawyer by profession, Tiede recounted to Local 2's Amy Davis, our partner on this story, how he was pulled over in the 3300 block of West Alabama in March 2009 by HPD Senior Officer Charles Webb.
"He walks up to me, and he's kind of smiling ... and he says, "Well, you want the good news or the bad news?'" Tiede remembers.
The bad news was that Webb planned to write Tiede a ticket for failing to stop at a stop sign, even though Tiede says he made a full stop there.
"At that point in time, I ask him, 'What's the good news?' And he says, ‘Well, the good news is, I'm not showing up in court,'" Tiede told Davis.
Webb, the lawyer said the officer "to some degree admitted that he was giving me a ticket for purposes of productivity, but that he was not paid overtime to testify and show up in court. And that's why he wasn't gonna testify ... I got the impression that he thought it might be a 'no harm, no foul' situation. He gets some productivity stats. I know that he's not going to show up and testify in court, um, so, what's the big deal?"
Sure enough, Tiede showed up for court on the required day, seven months later. When his case was called, he was told Webb had not arrived, and the case was dismissed.
Records show Tiede would have been fined $230 had he pleaded guilty or been found guilty in a jury trial.
"That frustrated me ... because I'm an attorney. And I'm an attorney that worked in law enforcement," Tiede told Local 2. "And I don't like the way that looks -- that I got a ticket for something that I didn't do, but that was being justified by the fact that the officer wasn't going to show up. I mean, that seemed like a dirty deal to me.
"I learned something ... but I was disappointed in how this played out."
Webb gave out 16 tickets in calendar year 2009, alleging some 42 traffic violations. Records show that his failure to show up to court caused the dismissals of the tickets he wrote to Tiede and another driver, a 22-year-old woman who he said improperly changed lanes on San Jacinto Street in January.
Reached by phone, Webb told Davis that he didn’t recall telling Tiede the "good news/bad news" story or that he wasn't going to show up in court. He said he typically tells drivers that the ticket doesn't mean they are guilty -- their guilt, or innocence, will be decided in court.
OFFICER MISSES 1 OF 5 COURT DATES
But those statistics -- two no-shows out of 16 tickets -- pale by comparison to some other HPD officers.
Take Nolan Cinco, another of HPD's senior officers, having been on the force since 1984.
Cinco handed out citations for some 4,880 traffic violations in 2009, according to court records, making him one of HPD's 10 most prolific ticket writers.
But records also show that 910 of those violations were dismissed for Cinco being AWOL on court day. That works out to nearly one violation out of every five he wrote last year being dismissed for being a no-show.
Or take Sgt. Fernando Marin, who has been with HPD for more than 30 years and whose career includes the heroic rescue of a baby from a burning house in the South Belt community in 1989.
Marin wrote nearly 1,200 tickets in 2009 -- but more than a third of those tickets wound up with charges being dismissed when he didn't show up to court, the database shows.
A total of 31 police officers had 300 or more violations dismissed because they didn't show up to court. Seven officers had 500 or more violations dismissed for being no-shows, Texas Watchdog found.
Thursday, 11/18/2010 - 10:05AM
The officers should be out looking for murderers, rapists, and burglars anyway, although they don't make much money off of that do they?
Thursday, 11/18/2010 - 10:25AM
The tax payers shouldn't be too upset, they just voted to throw out 4 million in revenue by dumping the red light cameras. How stupid. This was a perfect tax on the idiots that try to kill you at every intersection. There used to be a day in Houston when you had to wait and count to "five" before you pulled out when your light turned greeen, not "five" seconds, but five cars, as they sped through the intersection. The camera's reigned in this stupidity somewhat. Now, the revenue shortfall must be made up somehow, by ALL taxpayers, instead of the idiots that deserve the penalty.
Thursday, 11/18/2010 - 10:29AM
So what? Cut the budget. Eliminate all city welfare programs, for a start. Then up the retirement age for cops, firefighters, and all other city workers to match the Social Security retirement age.
Those simple steps will save a TON of money!
Thursday, 11/18/2010 - 10:40AM
At least city officers get paid to go to traffic court. County Deputies get no pay to show up in court, and most of them do not even go.
Thursday, 11/18/2010 - 10:55AM
Just more government corruption. That officer should be fired pure and simple. Now I am not suggesting that the officer should attend court on his/her own time, but the tickets they write should be pooled together once a month so that the officier can take an entire day if needed to be in court and testify. That way no overtime pay and the traffic offender pays his/her due.
Thursday, 11/18/2010 - 10:58AM
I welcome this news! Traffic tickets should be CIVIL and handled by an administrative court! It is complete idiocy that a police officer would collect overtime pay to sit in court. I would advise everyone to ask for a jury trial and take the day and go sit in court to wait out the police officer. At some point, the city will cave, which will cause the Legislature to rethink how traffic laws are enforced.
Looking at the streets as a cash cow is slimy. Sure there will be morons that say don't break the law and you won't get a ticket...blah, blah, blah. It's those same idiots that are not paying attention to road, using the left lane on the freeway as a cruising lane, clogging up traffic, and are just plain terrible drivers.
There should be no speed limits; only reckless driving laws. We would be a lot safer on the road if people were actually forced to pay attention to the road. Driving 30 mph on a street allows for people to talk on cell phones, eat, do their nails. Ridiculous!
I welcome reduced enforcement. Remember, ask for a jury trial and make the cop come to court!
Thursday, 11/18/2010 - 11:09AM
If officers have to appear in court as part of their job they should be paid while doing it. If they had to appear on their own time no tickets would be written at all. It sounds a little like the city wants something for nothing.
Thursday, 11/18/2010 - 11:10AM
You can't write what you can't catch. With less officers on duty traffic control goes to the back burner. Much attention has to be paid to criminal activity especially during the Holidays when the spending public is at the most risk. Cutting the budget for much needed police protection is not a good thing for any of us. We will all pay one way or the other for this economic crisis.
Thursday, 11/18/2010 - 11:31AM
Mr. Tiede's connection to this story makes no sense. The changes with HPD were put into place in 2010. Mr. Tiede recieved his ticket in 2009. That cop couldn't possibly have said what Mr. Tiede is saying...the new procedures weren't even in place.
I suspect Mr. Tiede volunteered to be a part of this story to get HIS name to the public. Check your facts Click2 and WatchDog.
Thursday, 11/18/2010 - 11:32AM
If you take into account the collection costs of the fines - salaries and overtime (for judges, city prosecutors, bailiffs, cashiers, police officers, etc), fixed costs (building maintenance, utilities, etc.), transportation costs (police cruisers assigned to ticket-writing cops, fuel, maintenance, purchase, and of course the take home car scam), lost productivity (by civilians not working to go to court for their tickets or to serve on a jury), and God knows how many other costs in that are part of this silly process - then the dollars actually left over to fix any streets is probably minimal. The traffic fine dollars actually feed the traffic fine process and are a make work program for employees that are otherwise not producing any value whatsoever for the City, its citizens, or the local economy.
If you want to fix streets, pay for libraries, financially back stadiums, etc. you need a tax policy that makes sense. Traffic fines disproportionately affect the poor and the lower middle class. If the City needs more dollars for capital improvements, etc; they should fairly raise taxes and stop exploiting those who can least afford it.
Thursday, 11/18/2010 - 05:21PM
So, if an officer writes tickets and goes to court, he is clearly milking the system and trying to rip off hard working members of society. If an officer doesn't write tickets, he is lazy and trying to rip off hard working members of society. You further buy into the myth that every ticket written is cash in the bank like this poor excuse for an article suggests, the presumption of guilt disturbing on the face of it, not just regarding the consequences.
Let me give you a different perspective on this matter. As an officer, you write a dozen tickets one day, most of the citizens proclaiming their innocence even though you caught them red headed. Many of them hire a local shyster who will tell them he can keep resetting the ticket half a dozen times until the officer finally caves in and either misses court for his long planned vacation, his daughter's recital, or because he saw some poor jerk stuck on the shoulder of the freeway on his way to court.
Even if none of those exact circumstances fit the bill and the officer goes to court announcing he is ready to proceed, there are thousands of cases set on every business day. Guess how many jury panels are brought in for the entire system each day? Yeah, maybe four and if your case hasn't been reset several times, your case is not likely to result in a trial that day. See, the city pressures people to settle their cases, often trading a non-moving case for all the others in order to milk you dry regardless of how guilty or innocent you are. Since the prosecutors have been held more accountable, they tell the officer the clerk types it up wrong, there is a defect in the complaint, or a myriad of reasons why it can't go forth, then listing the officer as not ready on the paperwork no matter what was said.
Police and fire careers are full of all sorts of pressures, not least of which includes the constant Monday morning quarterbacking by anonymous commentators that believe they have all the answers, that they could do better, or that public service is somehow beneath them. Frankly, I see your type all the time but still provide service with a smile, knowing your ignorance is heartfelt but oblivious to the realities of every day life in this cesspool of a city. For all the pleasant neighborhoods in the area, there are many more where you dare not venture forth, armed to the teeth or not, thanks to policies I assure you no one in policing advised in favor of.
I've even had dozens of people ride along with me over the years that thought likewise, most coming around to see how decades of under staffing police have led to what amounts to no fly zones, the grunt officers blamed for every stupid thing the city imposed on us, and you, that worked out poorly. We weed out our own better than any of you ever could and even if we seem constantly tired, mean, or otherwise not to your liking, we joined up to do the right thing to the best we are able, none of us allowed to chase after illegals or solve decade old problems in the space of 60 minutes like your favorite fictional television detectives that are written by others with no knowledge of police.
Follow the Money!
Sunday, 12/05/2010 - 10:11AM
Just follow the money! 25 million in lost revenue for 112,000 citations. Let's add up the other 845,000 using the 223.00 per ticket figure on the 112,000 citations. Here is the grand total in actual revenue 188,435,000.00 they did collect. Yes it is 188 million dollars in revenue. Officer Friendly must understand he is a revenue generator first and then a police officer second. Ever since our government agencies figured out the huge amount of additional taxes/revenue they can collect from driving workers the more they write and the less they patrol our streets. Heck they even have an entire unit for revenue generation.
Now the only reason they cut fire and police on budget cut days is because they want us the tax paying citizens to feel their pain of them having to stop their out of control spending. So they cut what hurts to the public and they save their own overpaid 100+K annual salaries, still get pay raises, and laugh all the way to the bank!
I suggest you have Texas Watchdog pull all the salaries of the department heads in comparison to what they pay in overtime and you will see I am correct following the money! No doubt in Houston they have a really nice court building that everyone can be proud of. You should also ask how much it cost to build. I am sure there is another property tax you are paying for this building on top of all the ticket revenue. Follow your tax money! It exposes many evils!
Thursday, 03/10/2011 - 09:42AM
I think its a shame for a person to receive a ticket for something they didn't do and still have to take off from work then you hit with court cost if you found not guilty why do you still have to pay court cost the officer should pay for wasting peole money and time