Officer Rickey Antoine is known around town as the man who gave his own mother a traffic ticket. She was driving 42 miles an hour in a 30 zone, out by the high school football stadium, the story goes. “She said, ‘Boy, quit playin’ with me,’” Antoine recalled. But Sadie Mae Antoine’s son makes no exceptions. His mom drove away with a ticket, Antoine said, and she didn’t cook him chicken dinner for the next couple months.
Antoine, 49, wears sport sunglasses and drives a fuel-black Dodge Charger he calls Roxanne, after the way Eddie Murphy sang the Police song in Beverly Hills Cop. “My Roxanne loves putting on her red lights,” he said. Roxanne often rumbles past Port Arthur’s empty lots and abandoned storefronts as Antoine scours the area for misbehaving motorists. Cameras peer out from the top of Roxanne’s trunk, their lenses scanning license plates in search of drivers who haven’t paid off their traffic fines.
Antoine launched a traffic-policing juggernaut in this small Gulf Coast city. Back in 2007, his bosses at the Port Arthur Police Department tapped him for a brand-new kind of job: writing up driving infractions full-time. Antoine went on a ticketing binge, and, propelled by all the new money from fines, city leaders expanded the traffic unit from just him to eight officers.
Then, with the help of the cameras, which automatically scan the license plates of nearby cars as police cruisers drive around town, the team expanded its reach to target not just people breaking the rules of the road, but also those who owe money from prior infractions.
Police higher-ups say the traffic unit has made Port Arthur a safer place to drive. The unit also caused the city’s yearly revenue from fines to soar, from $750,000 in 2006 up to as high as $2.1 million in 2012 before settling, most recently, at $1.5 million.
But people who cannot afford to pay their fines — which can run to a thousand dollars or more — often wind up behind bars, leading to a great disparity in the consequences of traffic tickets on people’s lives.
License plate recognition software is often touted as a way to catch terrorists, dangerous fugitives on the run, and stolen cars. But Port Arthur and many other departments around the country use it for a less extreme — but more lucrative — purpose: to pull over people who owe debts to the city municipal court, demanding, in many cases, that they either pay up or go to jail.