Thursday, October 06, 2005


Police departments find new source of revenue

According to this published report, inventive police departments around the midwest have discovered a new source of revenue: billing drivers for making out accident reports.

TOLEDO, Ohio -- Police chiefs facing tight budgets are turning to a new source for money -- drivers who cause fender benders or more serious accidents.

A few dozen police departments in the Midwest began charging drivers and their insurers within the past year for the cost of investigating traffic accidents and writing up reports.

Bills for drivers range from $120 to $500.

"That's money we can use to buy a patrol car or pay for gas," said Lt. Don McCarter of the Griffith, Ind., police department. "Everybody's always looking for extra money."

How it works varies from city to city. Some charge only non-residents, while other departments just send the bill to the insurer and don't seek payment from drivers whose policies won't cover the cost.

Police officials say they are targeting drivers and their insurers because officers are spending an increasing amount of time gathering information on traffic accidents -- information that is only useful to the insurance companies.

Some police reports now require officers to note details such as the damage to the vehicle and whether air bags were used.

"We don't have any use for that," said Huron Police Chief Randy Glovinsky. "The only thing I need to know is the accident location and the severity."

Michael Gurich, police chief in Sheffield Village near Cleveland, said his officers are doing the work of insurers. "We have adjusters come here every day getting our accident reports. They're tapping into this for their own benefit."

The first question that comes to mind is, if the police don’t need the information for any purpose, why are they collecting it? Are the accident report forms mandated by the state? If so, why is the state requiring the collection of information by the police which the police don’t need and which is apparently only of use to insurance adjusters?

It’s an open secret in Ohio that the insurance industry has huge influence with the Supreme Court. One justice, elected recently, publicly stated after the votes were tallied that those who supported her campaign would “get what they paid for.” Most observers thought that meant the insurance industry. Does that influence extend to the legislature? Is the legislature prescribing forms, to be completed at public expense, that benefit only private insurance companies? Or is it some unelected administrative agency that prescribes the forms?

If the forms are not mandated by the state, what the heck are the police using them for? Why are they gathering information which is not relevant to performing police duties?

Predictably enough, there are differing views on the propriety of this new, but apparently growing, practice:

Although only a few departments, mainly in Ohio, Michigan and Indiana, are billing for accident investigations, insurers are watching the issue closely, said Mary Bonelli, spokeswoman for the Ohio Insurance Institute, a trade group.

If the trend continues to grow, it could lead to higher rates or insurance companies may exclude coverage for fire and police runs, she said.

Bonelli said it's unfair for cities to charge drivers for this because they are already paying city taxes for such services. "In reality, you're paying for it twice," she said.

Another problem, she said, is that there is no consistency in how the fees are applied and that the departments are only going after insured drivers.

Cost Recovery Corp., based in Dayton, is one of a handful of companies that does the billing for about a dozen police departments. It also has been working with fire departments for several years to charge for ambulance and fire runs.

"It's fairer to have a user fee for those who are causing the situation," said Terry Henley, the company's president. "The alternative is to cut police officers."

About half of the insurers are paying the bills, he said, while others are refusing, leaving the cost with the driver in some cases.

Here’s another question. Presumably, you would not be “billed” for an accident that is not your fault. Are the police then waiting for the outcome of any court proceeding, and sending a bill only upon conviction or a guilty plea? Isn’t this then an unconstitutional additional element of punishment being handed out by a non-judicial government entity with no lawful authority to do so? Wouldn’t an alleged offender be entitled to notice that this might be a consequence of a guilty or no contest plea? And how much time are the police spending following up on these cases in order to bill only the guilty parties? Or have they simply farmed that out to the same collection agency that does the billing?

Anybody else see an equal protection problem here? If you follow the law (or act responsibly) and have insurance, you are subject to this additional penalty. If you are uninsured, you are exempt. And how come “the alternative is to cut police officers”? Wouldn’t the alternative be to have the police stop collecting information they don’t need, but that the insurance companies want to use?

I have to say, I have a problem with public officers billing taxpayers for performing the tax-financed service that their public employment requires, even though it is apparently unnecessary for the accomplishment of their public purpose. For that matter, I have a problem with the police collecting information they do not need for police purposes.

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