Warning versus citation: How officers decide when to give you a ticket
More warnings issued than tickets in Prescott
At 75 years old, Prescott resident Ronald Main received his first traffic ticket in late May.
“I’d never been cited in my life,” Main said.
He was driving along Prescott’s inner city streets when he executed what he refers to as a “California stop” at a four-way stop sign intersection.
“I slowed down to about 1 to 2 miles per hour, there was absolutely no traffic coming from any direction — no bicycles, no pedestrians, nothing — so I proceeded on down the road,” Main said.
Next thing he knew, he was being pulled over by an unmarked Prescott Police Department (PPD) vehicle.
Main explained his reasoning for the rolling stop, but the officer went ahead and issued the citation anyway. Shocked, Main tried to persuade the officer to instead issue him a warning given his perfect driving record, but the officer wouldn’t budge.
Main even contested the ticket in front of a traffic hearing officer at the Prescott City Court, but the ticket was upheld and he paid the $190 fine.
“It just isn’t right,” Main said. “I deserved a warning.”
After pulling someone over for a moving violation, it is entirely up to that officer’s discretion on whether or not to issue a ticket, according to police officials.
“Ultimately, it’s up to each individual officer on how they’re dealing with each situation,” PPD Traffic Sgt. Nathan Barto said.
For Barto, the major determining factor is how severe the violation is.
“If I think a warning will sufficiently correct the person’s driving behavior, then I’ll issue a warning,” Barto said. “If what they’re doing is out of the norm and it warrants a citation, I write the citation.”
Expanding on that, Prescott Valley Police Department (PVPD) Traffic Sgt. Rob Brown said he keeps quite a few factors in mind when making that decision.
“There’s past driving behaviors, weather conditions, roadway conditions, traffic conditions and if there are any hazards present or that could possibly be present,” Brown said. “Another is if there is a special detail that we’re doing.”
For instance, police department traffic units will sometimes identity roads that have had particularly high numbers of speeding violations, vehicle accidents or fatalities on them and decide to conduct zero-tolerance details on those roads for a specified amount of time.
“Our No. 1 priority is to educate the public and correct the incorrect behavior that they’re doing,” Barto said.
MORE WARNINGS THAN CITATIONS
So far this year, Prescott Police have issued far more warnings than citations.
Between Jan. 1 and May 31, the department issued 2,167 citations (35%) and 3,314 (65%) warnings.
“We are always told we’re heartless and all we write are citations, but clearly the numbers I just gave you do not back those statements,” Barto said.
Some of the most common violations, Barto said, are speeding, stop sign violations and failing to move over for emergency vehicles on the highway.
Fines for such violations can vary slightly from agency to agency, but in both Prescott and Prescott Valley speeding fines can range from $140 to $493 depending on the extent of the speeding, stop violations are $190 and passing violations are also $190.
When a warning is issued, that information is kept strictly with the agency that issued the warning, said Jake Lichlyter, a PVPD traffic patrol officer.
“They are not reported to the state or any other agency,” Lichlyter said. “So basically, a written warning is simply a record officers can see on a traffic stop within their own agency.”
And while some people believe officers are required to issue a certain number of citations every month, both Barto and Brown said neither of their departments subscribes to that philosophy.
“The only quotas we really have are for community-based policing,” Brown said. “Meaning, my officers have to go to a certain number of community events, such as Coffee with a Cop; nothing enforcement-related.”
Prescott Valley Police officials said their statistics mirror Prescott’s – with more warnings than citations – however, the specifics were not available at press time.