I’ve recently been asked by several people whether it is lawful to require officers to issue a certain number of citations, or to make a certain number of arrests, per day or per month. Generally, I think it is lawful, subject to some important caveats.
Let me start by noting that the use of quotas for officers doesn’t seem to be widespread. In fact, every agency responding to one recent survey about quotas denied using them. Still, every now and then a public records request or a personnel lawsuit by a former officer will reveal quotas in use. You can read some media reports about quotas here, here, here, here, here, and here.
Now on to the law. A number of states have statutes prohibiting the use of quotas. For example, 71 Pa. Stat. 2001 states that “[n]o political subdivision or agency of the Commonwealth shall have the power or authority to order . . . or . . . suggest to any police officer . . . that said police officer . . . shall issue a certain number of traffic citations, tickets or any other type of citation on any daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly or yearly basis.” Likewise, a Michigan statute provides that “[a] police officer shall not be required to issue a certain number of citations for violations of [the motor vehicle laws] or of local ordinances substantially corresponding to provisions of [the motor vehicle laws], including parking or standing violations, unless the issuance of citations is a part of a police officer’s performance evaluation system and the issuance of citations is not given any greater consideration than any other factor in the evaluation of a police officer’s performance.”
However, North Carolina does not have a general anti-quota statute. There is one for the Highway Patrol: G.S. 20-187.3 provides that “[t]he Secretary of Crime Control and Public Safety shall not make or permit to be made any order, rule, or regulation requiring the issuance of any minimum number of traffic citations, or ticket quotas, by any member or members of the State Highway Patrol. Pay and promotions of members of the Highway Patrol shall be based on their overall job performance and not on the basis of the volume of citations issued or arrests made.” But there is nothing similar for other law enforcement agencies.
The lack of a general statutory bar to the use of quotas does not end the inquiry, however. We still must consider whether the practice is unconstitutional. This question, in turn, breaks down into two parts: whether quotas violate officers’ rights, and whether they violate the rights of those cited or arrested.
Courts have generally rejected officers’ constitutional claims. Consider, for example, Gravitte v. North Carolina Div. of Motor Vehicles, 2002 WL 451803 (4th Cir. Mar. 25, 2002) (unpublished), a case brought by a DMV enforcement officer who alleged that the Division imposed various quotas on its officers. His 42 U.S.C. § 1983 suit was dismissed for failure to state a claim on which relief could be granted, and the Fourth Circuit affirmed:
The policy adopted by the DMV helps to ensure a minimum quantity of work from its law enforcement officers and helps to prevent shirking on the job. An employment policy enacted in pursuit of these goals, goals that would be shared by any reasonable employer, can hardly be deemed “egregious” or “outrageous,” even if it impinges on traditional police discretion and imposes more burdensome working conditions on law enforcement officers. The plaintiffs’ allegation that officers are “pressured and coerced to violate the law as a result of the ongoing ticket quota scheme,” J.A. 224, does not alter our conclusion. While it is conceivable that officers might be tempted to fill their quota by issuing citations for borderline or non-existent violations out of laziness, there is no allegation that the numerical quotas are so onerous that it is impossible for a diligent DMV officer to meet them without breaking the law.
“Soft” quotas, targets, or the consideration of average citation and arrest levels in evaluating officers’ performance are even more clearly permissible. See, e.g., Wells v. Miller, 2009 WL 2981945 (W.D. Pa. Sept. 11, 2009) (unpublished) (notwithstanding Pennsylvania’s statutory prohibition of quotas, it was proper to consider “station averages” in evaluating state troopers’ job performance). However, note the Gravitte court’s suggestion that quotas that are impossible or very difficult to meet may be improper. For example, requiring traffic enforcement officers to write 50 tickets per shift, or requiring felony investigators to make four arrests per day, would likely be impermissible quotas.
As to whether quotas violate the constitutional rights of those cited or arrested, the answer seems to be no, so long as the citation or arrest is supported by probable cause, because the subjective motivations of an officer in issuing a citation or making an arrest are irrelevant under Whren v. United States, 517 U.S. 806 (1996). That being said, if a quota is so high that it is likely to drive police misconduct, the legality of the quota itself may again come into question. Cf. Diaz-Bernal v. Myers, 758 F.Supp.2d 106 (D. Conn. 2010) (subjects of an immigration raid sued the officers who conducted the raid and their supervisors, alleging in part that the raid was the result of an ICE quota system that required each team of fugitive officers to make 1000 arrests per year; plaintiffs claimed that the system violated the Fourth Amendment; the court denied, in pertinent part, defendants’ motion to dismiss plaintiffs’ Fourth Amendment claim, stating that “plaintiffs have put forth a plausible claim that [two supervisors] are subject to . . . liability because their actions imposing intense pressure to make arrests [including the quota system] . . . created a policy under which constitutional violations occurred.”); Colbert v. City of Atlanta, 2010 WL 6397559 (N.D. Ga. April 5, 2010) (unpublished) (civil suit by persons against whom corrupt officers executed a search warrant; in the course of denying the city’s motion for summary judgment, the court noted that “there is ample evidence in the record that APD had a quota system that required officers to achieve a certain number of arrests and obtain a certain number of search warrants monthly,” which an officer claimed drove unlawful police practices).
Obviously, the fact that reasonable quotas are generally permissible doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily good policy. I don’t have any expertise on that issue and am agnostic about it.
As a final aside, officers don’t generally seem to like quotas, but neither are they enamored of disgruntled motorists’ questions about them. In online officers’ forums, I saw several proposed responses to questions about quotas, including “No sir, we don’t have a quota. I’m allowed to write as many as I like,” and “Yes ma’am, we do have a quota. One more ticket and I get a free toaster oven.”