Lexington police are writing fewer traffic tickets, records show

It might come as good news to lead-footed Lexington drivers: Police in Lexington are writing fewer traffic tickets.

Data released by the Kentucky Administrative Office of the Courts show a decline in the number of traffic cases going through Fayette County courts during the past five years, as police spend less time running radar and more time investigating property crimes such as copper theft, burglaries and theft from automobiles.

The number of traffic cases completed in Fayette County courts dropped by nearly a fifth from fiscal year 2007 to fiscal year 2011, which ended June 30, according to data received by the Herald-Leader.

The result is a nearly $1 million decline in traffic-related court costs generated in Fayette County and nearly $250,000 less in penalties. That money is used to fund state and local departments and programs.

The contribution to those funds from speeders, daredevils and distracted drivers in Lexington held steady from fiscal years 2007 through 2009, according to the data. About $4.2 million was collected each year from traffic-related court costs, and about $2 million annually from fines.

But a noticeable decline occurred in fiscal year 2010 and continued in 2011. During the last complete fiscal year — July 1, 2010, through June 30, 2011 — about $3.23 million in court costs and $1.73 million in fines were collected.

The decline in revenue is a result of thousands of fewer traffic charges being processed in Fayette County courts. There were 84,870 charges in fiscal year 2009; the number dropped to 76,231 in 2010 and 71,504 in 2011.

As property crimes have increased, police have "had to make some very difficult choices on how to delegate some of our officers," Lexington police spokeswoman Sherelle Roberts said.

The number of officers in the police traffic section has declined from 47 to 39 since 2007, the department estimated. Although any sworn officer may make a traffic stop, the city assigns fewer than a dozen officers each day solely to traffic enforcement, Roberts said.

In addition, officers are often moved from traffic enforcement to help patrol and investigate when a specific type of crime increases, she said. For example, in October, traffic officers assisted in a violent crime task force created to curb a rash of shootings in Lexington neighborhoods northeast of downtown.

While the overall crime rate hasn't varied much in the past five years, police are dealing with a spike in property crimes.

From 2007 to 2009, there were just less than 13,000 property crime reports per year. But in 2010, 13,980 property crimes were reported. By Dec. 7, 2011 — the most current data available — there had been 14,250 reports of property crimes committed against Lexington residents in 2011.

"If we're having to make a choice between writing traffic citations and working to reduce other kinds of crime ... then many times we will shift the traffic officers over to help with other types of crimes and violations," Roberts said.

The decline in citations means less money for the state, some of which is distributed to local police departments.

Money from fines — penalties set by judges that may vary by case — goes directly to the state's general fund. The state's general fund budget is roughly $9 billion.

Money generated from court costs, a flat fee of $130 in Lexington, is divided among 15 state and local government funds and programs, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts.

At least $49 of each $130 goes to the state's general fund. A little more than $10 goes to the sheriff's department in the county where the court cost was collected, and $10 is pooled and divided evenly among city police departments. Five dollars goes toward salaries of circuit court employees; $4 goes to counties to defray operating costs of jails.

The rest is allocated to research programs, a crime victims' assistance fund, a trust fund for the Department of Public Advocacy, and several other cabinets and programs. (Most programs have maximum funding limits, from $350,000 to $500 million a year. Any amount received from court costs over that threshold goes into the general fund.)

In fiscal year 2012, which began July 1, there has been no significant statewide decrease in fines and court cost contributions to the general fund when compared with the same period last year, Finance and Administration Cabinet spokeswoman Cindy Lanham said.

However, "we do not know what will happen the remainder of the fiscal year, and there are many factors that can affect fees collected by the state," she said.