NAPLES — Pinching pennies to save money isn't new, but Southwest Floridians may have found another way to be thrifty during tough financial times.
Become better drivers.
The number of citations issued each year in Southwest Florida is on the decline, and while the direct cause is unknown, local law enforcement officials believe it's a combination of pinching pennies and more awareness that drove the tickets down in recent years.
"I want to think that our motorists are more conscientious and maybe it is because they can't afford a ticket right now," said Sgt. Chris Gonzalez, with the Collier County Sheriff's Office traffic safety and traffic enforcement bureau.
Collier County deputies issued 21,924 traffic citations in 2010 compared to 65,850 just four years earlier. That's a 66 percent decline since 2006, and a Daily News public records request shows the Collier County Sheriff's Office isn't the only Southwest Florida law enforcement agency giving out fewer citations since the economic downturn.
Naples police gave out 7,601 traffic citations in 2010, compared to 10,974 in 2006. Lee County sheriff's deputies operating in the south district — which spans from near Bonita Beach Road to the south and Six Mile Cypress Parkway to the north — issued 8,492 citations in 2010. That's down from the 11,675 citations issued in 2006, or about 26 percent.
"They have gone down remarkably," Mark Bonner, a criminal law professor at Ave Maria School of Law, said about the sharp decline in Collier and Lee counties. "But I don't think that is the national experience. I think it is the other way around."
Gary Biller, executive director of the National Motorists Association, said that statement is correct. Biller said law enforcement agencies, as well as local governments, historically have used traffic citations as a way to generate revenue. That didn't change when times got tough. Instead, Biller said, most government leaders encouraged officers and deputies to give out more tickets.
A 2006 study by two researchers at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis looked at 13 years of data in North Carolina and found that when revenue drops, the number of traffic tickets issued typically increases, Biller said. The study also showed that "when things were really good" the number of tickets issued didn't drop, Biller said.
"I think what I would say is at any time, even in boom times, traffic ticket revenue is a constant source of revenue," he said. "And it becomes more apparent when fiscal times are tough."
But Southwest Florida law enforcement agencies said they aren't using these citations as a way to generate revenue, and in some cases have been making a conscious effort to issue more warnings than citations.
While Lee deputies gave out fewer tickets in 2010 than in previous years, Lee Sheriff's Office spokesman Lt. Larry King said the number of warnings has been on the rise. Deputies in the south district gave out 12,007 warnings last year, compared with 5,080 warnings just four years earlier.
"Cops are usually decent people," said Mark Bonner, a criminal law professor at Ave Maria School of Law. "They look at a car with a weeping woman with a lot of kids and say 'Geez, I just can't do it. This is wrong."
"As we know, officers use their discretion when it comes to tickets," Naples police Chief Tom Weschler said. "Sometimes a warning can be as effective, if not more effective, (than a ticket). And I believe there is empathy on (the officer's) part."
That empathy likely plays a big part, Bonner said, in an officer's decision on whether to issue a ticket.
"Cops are usually decent people," he said. "They look at a car with a weeping woman with a lot of kids and say 'Geez, I just can't do it. This is wrong.'"
Bonner said there doesn't appear to be a revenue ticketing problem in Collier and Lee counties, but in places where it does exist it occurs because of political pressure from local government leaders. Officials in Collier and Lee counties said there has been no political pressure to increase the number of tickets.
"Unbeknownst to everyone, deputies have hearts," Gonzalez said. "We do this because we want to make a difference. We want to help. We don't take the fact we have the authority to issue a citation with a monetary fine lightly."
By the numbers
*Lee County figures are for south of Six Mile Cypress Parkway
Sources: Collier County Sheriff’s Office, Lee County Sheriff’s Office, Naples Police Department