States and cities choose dollars over safety

Over at Reason, Brian Doherty dives into the effects the enforcement of petty crimes like jaywalking and traffic infractions can have on the poor.

L.A. police had already been issuing over a thousand tickets per month for jaywalking in the name of homeless management. A 2007 study from UCLA law professor emeritus Gary Blasi, “Policing Our Way Out of Homelessness? The First Year of the Safer Cities Initiative on Skid Row,” found such jaywalking or other petty citations given at rates 48 to 69 times those in the rest of the city. It noted that “of the 1,000 people per month who receive citations and are unable to pay the fines, most will face subsequent arrest and jail, even though the original offense may have been littering or a pedestrian signal.”

Some of those ticketed were in wheelchairs or otherwise disabled, or pushing a cart full of all their possessions in front of them as they tried to struggle across the street, says Pete White of Los Angeles Community Action Network, a poverty activist group. Blasi found the timing of skid row lights to be the absolute minimum imaginable for anyone to get across a street.

As damaging as the fines themselves can be, says White, his group also hates strict pedestrian law enforcement because it’s “an excuse for search, harassment, and intimidation of the poor” in a situation where a population of thirteen to fifteen thousand people downtown were receiving nearly that many citations a year.

Lawyer Carol Sobel, who helps represent many downtown L.A. residents who receive such citations, says you can often beat the rap if you go to court (usually because officers don’t show up, or your lawyer can prove they gave a citations that wasn’t legally warranted). But if you cannot beat the rap or pay the fine, that simple ticket for stepping off a curb can lead to an arrest warrant—which many activists think was in part the point of the city’s crackdown to begin with, a component in a general plan of clearing the homeless out of downtown L.A.

Contemplating how something as simple as a ticket for a couple hundred bucks could effectively ruin a life reminded me of the last time I was in traffic court, for driving a car in California with an expired license plate. I heard brief versions of the stories that brought dozens of my fellow citizens before the judge, some facing imprisonment, most just facing fines of more than a thousand dollars (that could lead to imprisonment if not paid).

Every single story that brought them there—overwhelmingly minorities and, my guess based on their demeanor and stories, working class—began with a “small fine” for some traffic-related infraction that, not dispatched with prompt bourgeois responsibility, ballooned to larger fines and/or arrest warrants.

Do the crime, pay the fine, many might think. Why wouldn’t they? Maybe the fine represented too large a part of their disposable income to be dealt with in time, or maybe they just aren’t that skilled at remembering to take care of expensive problems promptly.

I’ve written quite a bit about how cities have come to use traffic cameras not to maximize public safety, but to bolster city revenues. It’s gotten to the point where several cities have been caught shortening yellow lights to hand out more tickets, a practice that makes intersections significantly more dangerous.

That’s all bad enough. But Doherty explains that revenue-motivated traffic enforcement not only is often arbitrary, but can have crushing, cascading consequences for low-income drivers.

As David A. Harris pointed out in a 1997 article in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology called “’Driving While Black’ and All Other Traffic Offense: the Supreme Court and Pretextual Traffic Stops,” a driver is pretty much always committing a moving violation, since they can include actions as vague and open to interpretation as not giving “full time and attention to the operation of the vehicle.”

As Harris goes on to note, and disproportionate effect on the poor, that is going to have a disproportionate effect on minorities which, given American socioeconomics, can mean a disproportionate effect on the poor.

As will the state’s demands that we pay them off in various ways for permission to drive, a core element of modern working life for many. Tom Nordlie, a former assistant public defender in Florida in the 1990s  (and, disclosure, an old college buddy), remembers nearly a third of misdemeanor cases he represented involved people driving with licenses suspended (DWLS). A first offense could net two months in jail and a $500 fine — even though the crime did not necessarily cause any harm to anyone.

“In the world of misdemeanor crimes, many offenses come about because people are impulsive, drug-addicted, cruel or avaricious,” Nordlie says. “Most DWLS cases don’t happen for any of those reasons. DWLS cases come about because people are poor. Or, at the very least, because they don’t manage their money well … DWLS is more strongly linked to economics than any other misdemeanor offense.” It frequently occurred because of unpaid tickets, or lack of insurance.

“I had many clients tell me, ‘I had to keep working to have a chance to raise the money I needed to fix this situation, and in order to work, I had to drive.’ Bam. It’s a DWLS charge waiting to happen.”

Nordlie knows “there are situations where someone needs to stop driving, due to demonstrated incompetence or disregard for other peoples’ safety, But in my experience, those situations represent only a small fraction of DWLS cases.”

Many states also now tack “processing fees” onto traffic violations that can exceed the fine for the violation itself, sometimes several times over. Another trick: Make it more expensive to challenge a ticket than the cost of the ticket itself. Another strategy: Should they lose their challenge, hit motorists with an added fine so large, no one in his right mind would consider exercising his due process rights.

Skeptical? Consider this decision released just this week by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, upholding an Illinois town’s $30 “booking fee” for arrestees, even if the arrest doesn’t result in any criminal charges. That may not sound like much. But think of the implications. As one commenter at the Volokh Conspiracy put it:

It seems to me that this case, according to the majority, depends on the fact the $30 is not charged as a result of the underlying crime for which the arrest was made. That being the case, I see no reason, under this decision, that the police could not charge a fee for every time they become involved with citizens. The police could charge for making traffic stops regardless of whether a ticket was issued, they could charge for conducting searches, or giving breathalyzers. Maybe they could charge every time they testified at trial, why should expert witnesses be the only ones paid?

Another commenter added:

Think about the possibilities this ruling opens up: a city could charge an admission fee to anyone who crosses the city limits and an exit fee to those leaving, every time police pull over a vehicle the driver owes a $25 fee for the stop even if no ticket is issued, every Terry stop and frisk comes with a $50 fee payable immediately by the friskee whether or not a weapon is found.

If you think those (alleged) arrest and stop-and-frisk quotas are bad now, wait until city officials discover that they can start charging citizens $50 each time they’re subjected to the privilege of a pat-down or wrongful arrest.

So what happens if you just can’t pay all these fines? Some state are bringing back the debtor’s prison, though they won’t explicitly call it that. Here’s the economist Alex Tabarrok, writing at the Marginal Revolution blog a couple years ago.

Debtor’s prisons are supposed to be illegal in the United States but today poor people who fail to pay even small criminal justice fees are routinely being imprisoned. The problem has gotten worse recently because strapped states have dramatically increased the number of criminal justice fees. In Pennsylvania, for example, the criminal court charges for police transport, sheriff costs, state court costs, postage, and “judgment.” Many of these charges are not for any direct costs imposed by the criminal but have been added as revenue enhancers. A $5 fee, for example, supports the County Probation Officers’ Firearms Training Fund, an $8 fee supports the Judicial Computer Project, a $250 fee goes to the DNA Detection Fund. Convicted criminals may face dozens of fees (not including fines and restitution) totaling a substantial burden for people of limited means. Fees do not end outside the courtroom. Jailed criminals can be charged for room and board and for telephone use, haircuts, drug tests, transportation, booking, and medical co-pays. In Arizona, visitors to a prison are now charged a $25 maintenance fee. In PA in order to get parole there is a mandatory charge of $60. While on parole, defendants may be further assessed counseling, testing and other fees. Interest builds unpaid fees larger and larger. In Washington state unpaid legal debt accrues at an interest rate of 12%. As a result, the median person convicted in WA sees their criminal justice debt grow larger over time.

Many states are now even charging the accused to apply for and use a public defender! As a result, some defendants are discouraged from exercising their rights to an attorney.

Most outrageously, in some states public defender, pre-trial jail and other court fees can be assessed on individuals even when they are not convicted of any crime. Failure to pay criminal justice fees can result in revocation of an individual’s drivers license, arrest and imprisonment. Individuals with revoked licenses who drive (say to work to earn money to pay their fees) and are apprehended can be further fined and imprisoned. Unpaid criminal justice debt also results in damaged credit reports and reduced housing and employment prospects. Furthermore, failure to pay fees can mean a violation of probation and parole terms which makes an individual ineligible for Federal programs such as food stamps, Temporary Assistance to Needy Family funds and Social Security Income for the elderly and disabled.

Arguments against policies like primary seatbelt laws, jaywalking enforcement, traffic cameras, “distracted drivers” laws, and arbitrary speed enforcement are often met with derision. But these laws inevitably become more about revenue generation than public safety, and when local and state governments start to see motorists and pedestrians as piggy banks, you get policies like those above. For a good percentage of the population these fines can be devastating, and for them, there’s nothing petty about the aggressive enforcement of petty crimes.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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Radley Balko · January 10