Paying at the curb to the Georgia State Patrol's Motorcycle Unit

Their incentive to write tickets? They keep the money

Times are tough for the Georgia State Patrol. Just last week it announced that to save money on gas — and to avoid employee furloughs — more officers would be parked rather than actively patrolling the highways over the travel-heavy Thanksgiving weekend. Operating expenses have been reduced to a single digit percentage of the agency's overall budget, and when federal stimulus funding expires in the near future, the GSP will face a $10.3 million budget gap.

Its offshoot on two wheels, however, isn't experiencing quite the same crunch. Thanks to the 2006 law that established it, the GSP Motorcycle Unit has a dedicated funding source in the form of traffic tickets. Under the law, the unit gets to keep almost all of the revenue from the tickets it writes on metro Atlanta's interstates. The citations' fines fund the unit's maintenance and operations. (For every other law enforcement agency that writes tickets, those fines go to the city or county in which the citation was issued.) To say that the Motorcycle Unit has an incentive to write tickets is like saying Atlanta has a traffic problem.

Even though the GSP is strapped for cash, the Motorcycle Unit's arrangement has managed to raise eyebrows since the legislation — sponsored by former State Rep. Jill Chambers, R-Dunwoody, and championed by Gov. Sonny Perdue — was introduced and signed four years ago. Not only does the arrangement promote the perception that officers would write lots of tickets because they have a direct financial motivation to do so, it holds metro Atlanta courts responsible for adjudicating the citations, with meager recompense for their trouble. One observer close to the system describes paying a Motorcycle Unit citation in court as "a few shades off from just paying at the curb."

According to Chambers, the GSP Motorcycle Unit was created to ease congestion on the interstate system within the I-285 loop. Because they're "nimble," Chambers says, motorcycle cops can respond to and clear accidents more quickly than a local agency or even a GSP officer in a car. GSP Maj. Mark McDonough says ticketing drivers for traffic violations is little more than a "byproduct" of that original mission.

But it's become an increasingly profitable byproduct in recent years. When the unit doubled its membership from 10 to 20 officers in 2009, the number of citations written went from 6,297 in 2008 to 12,774 the next year. During the 2010 fiscal year, the Motorcycle Unit brought in $916,848 in revenue from citations. It's not an enormous sum, but it's more than nine times the $95,472 the Unit made in 2007. The citations are processed in courts throughout the metro area, but the vast majority are adjudicated in Fulton County Magistrate Court. The court retains only maintenance fees — and the county itself gets nothing, despite the fact that county resources are used to process the tickets.

Rep. Chambers — who was named an honorary Georgia state trooper after the bill passed — says that despite the cost incurred, counties and cities ultimately benefit from the Motorcycle Unit's presence. "There's cost savings when the Motorcycle Unit is out there working," Chambers says. "If Atlanta cops are in a neighborhood, rather than working traffic and wrecks, then they can do more community policing. If you have five units working an accident scene, that's five patrol cars that can be out in neighborhoods."

Frank Rotondo, executive director of the Georgia Association of Police Chiefs, has been dubious of the legislation since its introduction, mostly because he says it furthers the public's perception that cops might ticket for their own benefit.

"For many, many years, law enforcement has been fighting the impression that it writes tickets for money. This adds to that impression," Rotondo says. "If the Unit needs another motorcycle, people can perceive that they're increasing ticketing to pay for that motorcycle or for more personnel. Money should never go directly to a law enforcement agency."

GSP Maj. McDonough dismisses the notion that the unit would ticket solely to profit.

"If I wanted to use ticketing as a vehicle to make money, I'd put 200 officers on motorcycles in Atlanta," McDonough says with a laugh.