D.C. parking, traffic tickets snowball into financial hardships

Traffic and parking tickets are issued more often in Black neighborhoods than White ones, according to D.C. data analyzed by The Washington Post. Advocates for changing the District’s fees and fines system say the disparities criminalize poverty.

Garry Scott, 68, owed D.C. more than $2,500 for parking and moving violations before late fees and fines doubled the amount to over $5,000. (Amanda Voisard for The Washington Post)
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Garry Scott, 68, vaguely remembers the first ticket he got after moving to D.C. It was almost a decade ago. It was probably an infraction for not having a residential parking permit, he says.

He figured he would pay it later.

But a few days later, another ticket appeared. Then another. Then a few more got stuck to his windshield.

“At one point I had six tickets on my window,” he said.

The fines doubled when Scott, who has a limited income, failed to pay the tickets on time. The growing unpaid fees spiraled Scott into bankruptcy, unemployment and eventually homelessness. Today, Scott owes the city more than $5,000 — all for unpaid driving or parking tickets.

“It feels like a million,” he said.

Scott is among the D.C. residents disproportionately affected by a ticketing and traffic enforcement system that critics say traps people with debilitating fees and fines and preys on the working class and people of color.

The Washington Post collected five years of traffic and parking enforcement data, containing more than 10 million records of infractions given to motorists during those years. The data, obtained from records requests to the District, was merged with data from the U.S. Census to illustrate how tickets are enforced throughout the city and the effect the policy has on specific communities.

A Washington Post analysis of traffic tickets the District issued from 2016 through 2020 shows that 62 percent of all the fines from automated systems and D.C. police — $467 million — were issued in neighborhoods where Black residents make up at least 70 percent of the population and where the average median household income is below $50,000. In overwhelmingly White and financially well-off census tracts, where average median household income levels are above $100,000, the city issued about $95.9 million in infractions.

The data also shows that, outside of downtown and commercial corridors, the average annual fines of $7.6 million in parking tickets issued in Black neighborhoods were nearly double compared with the $4.1 million in White neighborhoods — even though census data indicates predominantly Black neighborhoods have less than a third of the city’s driving-age residents.

Traffic tickets are issued more

often in Black neighborhoods

than White ones

Traffic fines from moving violations, red-light

cameras and police stops in D.C. issued in

neighborhoods that were more than 70

percent Black or White from 2016 to 2020.

White

neighborhoods

Black

neighborhoods

$96M in traffic tickets issued in White

neighborhoods

$10 million

$467M in traffic tickets issued in Black

neighborhoods

Source: D.C. Department of Transportation

KATE RABINOWITZ/THE WASHINGTON POST

Traffic tickets are issued more often in

Black neighborhoods than White ones

Traffic fines from moving violations, red-light cameras

and police stops in D.C. issued in neighborhoods that

were more than 70 percent Black or White from 2016 to

2020.

White

neighborhoods

Black

neighborhoods

$96M in traffic tickets issued in White neighborhoods

$10 million

$467M in traffic tickets issued in Black neighborhoods

Source: D.C. Department of Transportation

KATE RABINOWITZ/THE WASHINGTON POST

Traffic tickets are issued more often in Black

neighborhoods than White ones

Traffic fines from moving violations, red-light cameras and police stops in D.C. issued in

neighborhoods that were more than 70 percent Black or White from 2016 to 2020.

$96M in traffic tickets issued in

White neighborhoods

$467M in traffic tickets issued in

Black neighborhoods

$10 million

Source: D.C. Department of Transportation

KATE RABINOWITZ/THE WASHINGTON POST

And during the pandemic, when unemployment soared and the Department of Public Works eased or paused enforcement of parking restrictions, disparities remained, according to a Post analysis of the data. D.C. police issued more than $3.2 million in traffic infraction tickets to Black motorists from March 2020 through June 2021. For White motorists, it was $569,700. Last year, automated systems generally operated by the Department of Transportation issued more than $110 million in tickets in neighborhoods where Black residents made up 70 percent of the population, and $24 million where the residents were mostly White.

Advocates for changing the District’s system of fees and fines say the disparities show that the city’s ticketing and traffic enforcement policies not only target Black drivers but criminalize poverty. When a person in the District cannot pay their infractions, the amounts double. The city can then put a hold on license and vehicle renewals and registrations before calling on debt collection agencies that tack on additional surcharges to capture overdue fines. The result over time becomes a financial and bureaucratic black hole where people like Scott lose their vehicles and jobs, making it that much more difficult to crawl out of debt.

Following last year’s racial reckoning over policing nationwide, the discrepancies in ticketing have again become part of the debate over law enforcement reform and renewed calls locally for an overhaul of the District’s policies.

“This ticket system we have in the District is crippling the finances of poor and working-class Black and Brown families,” said council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8), who has been an advocate of ticket reform since joining the council in 2017. “The average person doesn’t have an additional $300 in discretionary funds to pay to a government that has a $500 million surplus during a pandemic.”

‘Downhill’

Outside of the District’s adjudication service center tucked inside the back of a shopping center in Southeast Washington, each patron seeking to pay off parking and traffic tickets one afternoon in late March was Black.

Scott is familiar with this office, becoming a regular visitor trying to pay off and fight tickets since he first moved to the area from Indiana in 2013, after retiring from the Air Force.

“They just kept coming in and that led to me being homeless,” he said. “I had never seen tickets starting out at $150 in my life.”

Scott purchased a new car in 2016, but the overdue citations prevented him from registering his vehicle, which he needed to get to work each day — a job he hoped would pay for those tickets. The debt led to a series of tough choices for the veteran, who lives in affordable housing and has dialysis appointments at least twice a week. He lost his job coaching a youth football team, as well as his car and filed for bankruptcy, which only temporarily stopped citations collections.

“And everything just went downhill,” he said.

“This ticket system we have in the District is crippling the finances of poor and working-class Black and Brown families.”
— D.C. Council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8)

Although the most recent census data, from 2019, shows that White people in the Washington area are more likely to drive, and the number of White and Black residents of driving age in the District is almost equal, there are deep disparities between who gets a ticket and is fined. And city data shows that more than half of all active vehicle registrations are in White-majority Zip codes.

Regionwide, of the 2.6 million people who commute, 52 percent of residents who drive to work are White and 26 percent are Black. But since July 2019, more than 67 percent of ticket fines issued by police officers have been given to Black motorists, according to D.C. police data analyzed by The Post.

Data analyzed by The Post also shows that Black-majority communities each year from 2016 through 2019 in the District have been fined on average more than $2.6 million in citations for violations such as expired registrations, licenses and inspection stickers — often indicators of poverty. White-majority areas have averaged just above $652,000 within the same time frame.

Tickets issued in D.C. linked to

indicators of poverty

Tickets for expired registrations or licenses

are often indicators of poverty. Fines from

such traffic tickets were more frequently

issued in neighborhoods that were more

than 70 percent Black compared with those

that were more than 70 percent White from

2016 to 2019.

White

neighborhoods

Black

neighborhoods

$652K in poverty-related tickets

issued in White neighborhoods

$100K

$2.60M in poverty-related tickets

issued in Black neighborhoods

Poverty-related tickets make up about 1 percent

of all traffic tickets.

Source: D.C. Department of Transportation

KATE RABINOWITZ/THE WASHINGTON POST

Tickets issued in D.C. linked to indicators

of poverty

Tickets for expired registrations or licenses are often

indicators of poverty. Fines from such traffic tickets were

more frequently issued in neighborhoods that were more

than 70 percent Black compared with those that were

more than 70 percent White from 2016 to 2019.

White

neighborhoods

Black

neighborhoods

$652K in poverty-related tickets issued in White

neighborhoods

$100K

$2.60M in poverty-related tickets issued in Black

neighborhoods

Poverty-related tickets make up about 1 percent of all traffic

tickets.

Source: D.C. Department of Transportation

KATE RABINOWITZ/THE WASHINGTON POST

Tickets issued in D.C. linked to indicators of poverty

Tickets for expired registrations or licenses are often indicators of poverty. Fines from such

traffic tickets were more frequently issued in neighborhoods that were more than 70 percent

Black compared with those that were more than 70 percent White from 2016 to 2019.

$652K in poverty-related tickets

issued in White neighborhoods

$2.60M in poverty-related tickets

issued in Black neighborhoods

$100K

Poverty-related tickets make up about 1 percent of all traffic tickets.

Source: D.C. Department of Transportation

KATE RABINOWITZ/THE WASHINGTON POST

The office of Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D), the Department of Public Works and the Department of Motor Vehicles did not respond to multiple requests for comment. D.C. police also have not provided comment to The Post.

The Department of Transportation, which selects the location of automated cameras, declined to comment on The Post’s findings, but in a 2021 report the agency noted that the automated systems are placed in areas of high traffic and related crashes.

D.C.-based attorney Sean Riley protects motorists from losing their license by fighting tickets in the courtroom and helping them avoid accumulating infraction points on their record that could lead to license suspension. Most of the people in the courtrooms are typically Black or non-White, he said. Riley says the discrepancy isn’t that White people aren’t committing traffic infractions, but rather they aren’t being stopped as frequently when they do.

“Police have broad discretion whether they can pull you over,” he said. “Once they pull you over, they decide you get a ticket.”

‘Undue burden’

Changing the District’s system of fines for years has been a source of tension for residents and community leaders.

At a 2014 public safety committee meeting, shortly after protests in Ferguson, Mo., spread to other cities, the D.C. Council began examining city police interactions with Black residents and questioning procedures such as stop and frisk. The review evolved into a deeper look at racial inequities in enforcement.

Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) presented possible reforms aimed at helping residents pay their fines. She noted then that the District‘s traffic enforcement policies not only perpetuated poverty but penalized it, saying the number of fines the city charges for infractions are disproportionate in some places. Cheh said revoking licenses for unpaid fines was also unnecessary, and created an “undue burden on people who cannot afford the fines and lose their jobs as a result.”

In 2018, the council stopped the city from suspending driver’s licenses for overdue fines, but D.C. continued to block residents from renewing any license, including a driver’s license, if they owed the city more than $100. The city also sought to pass a group of bills that included reforming the District’s ticket payment policies, giving residents more time to pay their citations and waiving late fees if residents paid at least 60 percent of the balance. But those changes were met with opposition by the Department of Motor Vehicles and treasury office and, ultimately, failed.

D.C. Finance and Treasury Office officials stated in a memo that they had “a few concerns with this bill.”

Testimony written by Jeffrey DeWitt, the city’s chief financial officer at the time, stated the proposed bill would reduce fine and penalty revenue by approximately $32.4 million in fiscal 2019 and $124.7 million over the proposed four-year financial plan period. DeWitt, who has since left the city for another job, has not responded to requests for comment. Officials currently with the finance office told The Post that the council ultimately decides how important fines are to the city’s budget.

Ariel Levinson-Waldman, founder of Tzedek DC, said the pushback from the District’s financial office is common as “their job is only to bring in revenue.” Tzedek DC is a legal advocacy group that helps low-income residents with debt-related issues.

Levinson-Waldman added that the District’s traffic enforcement disparities echoed national findings by the Justice Department, which reviewed the impact of Ferguson’s police department on Black residents after nationwide social justice protests were sparked by the fatal shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a White police officer there.

“The picture is clear — this is the kind of structural program that the Ferguson Report highlighted,” he said.

The report concluded that in “nearly every aspect of Ferguson’s law enforcement system,” African Americans are impacted a severely disproportionate amount. The report said 90 percent of those issued citations were African American though they made up 67 percent of the population.

White, the D.C. councilman, said the city’s approach is not about safety, it’s about revenue.

During the 2018 meeting, White asked DeWitt whether the ticket revenue was necessary to balance the budget and keep it healthy, and the answer was no, White recalled.

“And my second follow-up was, if this is about public safety, then why are the fines so high and what’s the rationale behind it?” White said recently. “And he couldn’t answer.”

‘Then you suffer’

Billiedee Gibbs said she owes more than $7,000 in parking and traffic infractions and half of that is from not paying fines on time.

Gibbs is not alone. In 2019, about 28 percent of traffic and parking fines owed from tickets given in predominantly Black neighborhoods stemmed from late penalties, causing the original fines of $116.9 million to grow to $163.9 million owed, according to data reviewed by The Post.

Gibbs hasn’t worked since 2011. Medical complications related to diabetes have kept her in and out of the hospital, making it hard to keep a steady job.

“I've been struggling with that for years,” she said. “When I lost my job, me and my three daughters ended up in a D.C. shelter, and we were there for about two to three years.”

She managed to hold on to her car while she and her daughters lived in the shelter, but because she was unable to afford renewal fees, parking tickets piled on while the car stayed parked near the shelter, turning one of her last material possessions into another burden.

“My car was my only way of keeping the little bits of things that we had, like our clothes,” she said.

Former D.C. mayor Vincent C. Gray, now a Democratic councilman for Ward 7, launched an amnesty program in 2011 and 2012 to help people like Gibbs by temporarily forgiving late fees. But Gibbs said she did not have the funds to begin paying off her debts. More than eight years later, Bowser kicked off a similar campaign in June to waive all penalties on tickets. The grace period ends Sept. 30.

But again, Gibbs still doesn’t have the money.

“I don’t see it working for me. Because, like I said, I haven’t worked since 2011 because of my diabetes, being in the hospital,” she said. “Not being able to drive on my own and go places and — it’s a burden on me. It’s a burden on my family. If you can’t pay your tickets then you suffer sometimes, and that’s pretty much what my household is dealing with right now.”

Frank Baumgartner, a University of North Carolina professor of political science who focuses on criminal justice, said D.C.’s data reflects a nationwide trend.

“The bigger concern is this kind of institutional practice of over-policing neighborhoods and under-policing other neighborhoods, and that is what generates a huge amount of racial disparities,” he said.

Investigatory traffic stops were introduced as part of a national push to crack down on crime in the 1980s and 1990s, Baumgartner said. Police departments justified the inequities by often noting how often drugs and guns are removed from neighborhoods, he said. But he said it often requires needlessly hassling residents to find the worse offenders.

D.C. police have collected racial data during traffic stops since July 2019. The data shows that from August 2019 through June 2021, D.C. police issued more than $5.8 million in handwritten traffic tickets to Black motorists compared with just over $1.1 million given to White motorists.

It also shows young Black motorists between 26 and 35 years old carry the largest financial load compared with other motorists, receiving more than a fourth of all fines written by police.

D.C. police have said they make stops in response to public safety demands. In a 2019 report reviewing stop data, the department said it “recognizes that police officers, with their critical role in safeguarding the city and enforcing the laws and rules of government, have a unique professional and personal responsibility to protect individual rights. MPD [Metropolitan Police Department] is committed to working to mitigate systemic and implicit bias in the exercise of this police authority.” The District is reviewing race disparities in stops, and in October partnered with Howard University and Georgetown Law School for a 10-day workshop that included a discussion over concerns with police stops.

As the city reopens and ticket enforcement resumes, advocates continue to push for new policies surrounding fees and fines.

In April, D.C. Council members Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) and Robert White (D-At Large) introduced a bill that would end the practice of automatically denying the renewal of driver’s licenses for D.C. residents who have unpaid debt to the District. And another bill introduced by Cheh would end the practice of dropping residents from payment plans should they miss an installment.

The bills are pending council review and the mayor’s subsequent approval.

The bills follow legislation the council passed in 2017, also introduced by Silverman, which restored driver’s licenses for 18,000 D.C. residents who had them suspended for unpaid tickets. Data obtained by The Post shows that District and non-District residents owed the city more than $480 million from tickets given between 2000 and May 2021. As of October, Maryland and Virginia drivers owed the bulk of outstanding fines from parking and traffic citations racked up in the past four years.

“Wealth shouldn’t determine who gets to have a driver’s license in our city.”
— D.C. Council member Elissa Silverman

The council members say thousands of residents have been denied a license over the practice, which municipalities are increasingly abolishing as they reform their police departments. At least 15 states do not suspend driver’s licenses for failure to pay, according to the Fines and Fees Justice Center.

“Denying a driver’s license simply because someone can’t afford to pay a fine puts some of our residents into perilous circumstances,” Silverman said in a statement. “Wealth shouldn’t determine who gets to have a driver’s license in our city.”

Debt, rent and groceries

Despite his financial troubles, Scott remains optimistic. He plans on looking for a basketball camp this summer to work as a referee and hopes to see his family in Indiana.

“I never let too many things rattle me,” said Scott, who is still unemployed.

However, even with an amnesty plan in effect and the council’s recent efforts, Scott will be unlikely to pay his debts to the city. He does not receive much from Social Security, which leaves little for rent and groceries.

Scott hasn’t had a valid license for at least five years and hopes to have it reinstated if the council’s bills pass this year to get him to appointments and perhaps find a new job. But even that is uncertain. If he gets his license reinstated, the city still will not allow him to register any vehicle until his more than $5,000 in debts are paid.

“I owe them quite a bit,” he said.

About this story

Reporter Emily Davies contributed to this report. Story editing by Lynh Bui and Meghan Hoyer. Graphics by Kate Rabinowitz. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Copy editing by Karen Funfgeld. Design by J.C. Reed.

Methodology

To analyze the patterns of moving violation and parking ticket data at the community level, The Washington Post collected data sets from 2016 through 2021 from the District through its open data portals and through Freedom of Information Act requests. The analyzed data, which contained more than 12 million entries, includes all tickets — even those that may have been dismissed.

The Post analyzed infractions issued only by automated cameras, D.C. police and the Department of Public Works, which represent the majority of all tickets given to motorists in the District. The data contains the longitude and latitude of each infraction, which allowed reporters to merge it with demographic data from the Census Bureau. The analysis used a 70 percent threshold for racial groups to determine the predominate racial group in each census tract. Tracts that did not meet that threshold for any one race were disregarded.

The Post obtained licensed driver race data from the Department of Motor Vehicles through a FOIA request. Since summer 2019, D.C. police have recorded the race and gender of each motorist during a traffic stop, allowing for a granular look at each violation. The amounts reflected in the analyzed data from D.C. police were calculated before any tickets were dismissed.

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