Polk County, Fla., Sheriff Grady Judd is getting some heat for the tweet below, posted Wednesday morning. And rightly so.
Most of the criticism of Sheriff Judd’s tweet has rightly focused on its implications. If residents of Polk County heed Judd’s warning and stay away from shelters, and if Hurricane Irma hits Polk County with all the force and fury that’s expected, it seems likely that some of those people will be injured or killed. It’s an incredibly irresponsible thing to have posted publicly, and it’s indicative of a sheriff who’s more interested in being punitive than in public safety.
But I want to dig a little deeper into this, and look at who it is that Sheriff Judd’s tweet is targeting. For most people, I suspect the phrase “outstanding warrant” conjures up an image of someone accused of domestic abuse, an escaped felon or someone who jumped bail after an arrest for a serious offense. But the vast majority of people living under outstanding warrants got to that position because of one or a series of traffic citations, followed by an escalation of fines and fees stemming from an inability to pay.
The common refrain from people defending the sheriff on social media was some version of “If you can’t handle the punishment, don’t break law.” This was also a common response to the post-Ferguson reports (including here at The Watch) on the way fines and fees have been devastating low-income people in St. Louis County, Mo., and to similar reports about oppressive fines and fees in other places across the country.
In fact, it’s a common enough response that I think it deserves a detailed deconstruction. So here are a few things to keep in mind when we talk about people who have outstanding warrants stemming from low-level offenses.
— Speed limits are arbitrary, counter-productive and almost universally too low
Most of us speed. A 2008 Purdue University survey of Indiana drivers found that “21 percent thought it was safe to drive up to 5 mph over the speed limit, 43 percent thought it was safe to drive up to 10 mph over and 36 percent thought it was safe to drive up to 20 mph over the speed limit.” A 2002 study found that two-thirds of drivers said it was safe to ignore posted speed limits. Gary Megge, a lieutenant with the Michigan State Police who has researched speeding for much of his career, estimates that only about 10 percent of drivers strictly observe speed limits.
There’s good reason for this. Most posted speed limits are far too low. There’s a perception that most motorists will always drive 5 miles to 10 miles per hour above the posted speed limit, no matter what it is, on the theory that most cops won’t take the time to pull them over for such a slight infraction. But that perception is wrong. According to a 1992 study by the federal Transportation Department, most drivers adjust their speed according to road conditions. Posted speed limits only factor into the equation if there’s a speed trap nearby. More importantly, there’s little correlation between traffic fatalities and raising or lowering the speed limit:
The results of the study indicated that lowering posted speed limits by as much as 20 mi/h (32 km/h), or raising speed limits by as much as 15 mi/h (24 km/h) had little effect on motorist[s’] speed. The majority of motorists did not drive 5 mi/h (8 km/h) above the posted speed limits when speed limits were raised, nor did they reduce their speed by 5 or 10 mi/h (8 or 16 km/h) when speed limits are lowered. Data collected at the study sites indicated that the majority of speed limits are pos[t]ed below the average speed of traffic. Lowering speed limits below the 50th percentile does not reduce accidents, but does significantly increase driver violations of the speed limit. Conversely, raising the posted speed limits did not increase speeds or accidents.
The authors studied a wide cross section of roads and highways, and found that on 90 percent the roads they studied, at least half of motorists were driving faster than the posted speed limit. These results have been confirmed in subsequent studies. For example, a 1997 study of Michigan roads by the consulting group TranSafety, Inc., concluded that:
Compliance with speed limits was not necessarily an accurate measure of safety. Although more crashes occur in urban areas, as can be expected from congestion and the need to react to other vehicles, drivers seem to choose speeds similar to the design speeds for different types of roads. The research suggests that lowering speed limits arbitrarily does not affect traffic safety. Speed limits and speed zones would be more effective if they were based on geometrics, traffic characteristics, and safety benefits rather than popular conceptions.
Most traffic accidents happen not when drivers speed, but when motorists are traveling at widely varying speeds on the same road. If we’re going to have posted speed limits — and it’s not entirely clear that we should — the consensus among the engineers and academics who study this stuff is that the the optimal speed for safety and efficiency is known as the “85th percentile speed,” or as a Michigan State Police guide puts it, “the speed at or below which 85% of the traffic moves.”
But few states abide by the rule. That 1992 DOT study looked at 22 states and found that the average speed limit was at the 45th percentile, and on average was between 5 miles and 16 miles per lower than the optimal speed limit. The study found that when speed limits were lowered even more, accidents didn’t decrease, but more motorists sped. When the artificially low speed limits were raised, accidents decreased, and the motorists at the highest percentiles did not significantly increase their average speed to compensate.
It’s true that if the speed limit everywhere were 20 miles per hour, and everyone abided by it, the roads would be immeasurably safer. But that isn’t going to happen. And we simply don’t have the resources to catch every speeder. Even the most aggressive enforcement won’t catch everyone. In fact, more aggressive enforcement may make the roads less safe by altering psychology of drivers. As noted, most motorists are pretty good at finding a speed at which they can safely drive, given the road conditions at the time. But in areas of aggressive enforcement — think of speed traps where the posted limit may suddenly drop — there’s a tendency to stop relying on instinct and peripheral awareness, and spend more cognitive energy looking for speed limit changes and waiting cops.
So the empirical evidence overwhelmingly states that we’d be a lot safer if most towns and cities raised their speed limits to the rates at which most motorists drive.
Why won’t they? Because . . .
— Local governments need people to break traffic laws. They’ve grown dependent on the revenue.
Michigan is one of the few states that tries to implement the 85th percentile approach. But getting local towns and municipalities to go along has been a struggle. The blog Price Economics interviewed Lt. Megge about the problem in 2014.
In our conversation, Lt. Megge stated that he believes speed traps to be a “big problem” and counter to police officers’ real role of altering dangerous behavior. In a Detroit News article about a number of towns ignoring state law by not reviewing the speed limits on stretches of their roads, Megge said that he believes the communities did so in order to avoid revising speed limits upwards. This allows them to keep collecting ticket revenue on “artificially low” speed limits.
This is the biggest obstacle to getting local governments to do the right thing. As it turns out, posting speed limits significantly below what most drivers intuitively (and correctly) find to be safe and reasonable . . . is pretty darned lucrative. And while they may not have planned it that way, there’s now ample evidence that our speed limits are too low — and few if any jurisdictions have done anything about it.
Imploring people to “obey the law” is a lot less persuasive once you understand that most posted speed limits are intended to entice motorists to speed, and they’re deliberately targeting people who the empirical data show are driving safely.
Speed traps — spots where cops look to nab motorists after the speed limit quickly changes or is intuitively too low — are bad enough. But if you wanted to get conspiratorial, there’s plenty of material for that too. Studies have consistently shown that lengthening yellow lights can significantly cut down on dangerous t-bone crashes at intersections. Not only have most municipalities failed to heed those studies, there have been too many stories to count now about cities and towns shortening yellow lights to generate more fines, most recently in Chicago. In St. Louis County, a part of the country that has become infamous for its reliance on municipal fines — and for issuing arrest warrants for citizens who can’t afford to pay them — police in one town were caught manually changing a green light to red on a busy highway in order to frame motorists, generate fines and rake in revenue.
— In some jurisdictions, cops are pressured to issue as many citations as possible
We’ve seen ticket quota scandals in Los Angeles; Arlington, Va.; New York City (which just paid out a $75 million settlement related to quotas); Auburn, Ala.; Camden, N.J.; the Tennessee Highway Patrol; and the state police in Massachusetts.
In St. Louis County, one town mayor included a note with his police officers’ paychecks, telling them that if they didn’t start issuing more fines, the town couldn’t afford to pay them. Another officer received a letter from a mayor threatening to fire him if he didn’t hit his quota.
Florida is not exempt. In 2014, the town of Waldo disbanded its police department after a quota scandal. Another scandal just last month resulted in resignations from the Florida Highway Patrol, including one commanding officer who demanded at least two citations every hour.
Back in 2009, police officials in Michigan conceded that they get pressure from city officials to generate revenue, particularly when — as was the case then — the economy is struggling.
“When elected officials say, ‘We need more money,’ they can’t look to the department of public works to raise revenues, so where do they find it? Police departments. A lot of police chiefs will tell you the goal is to have nobody speeding through their community, but heaven forbid if it should actually happen—they’d be out of money.”
That was the president of the largest police union in Michigan, talking to Car and Driver. The police chief from Utica, Mich., also weighed in. “When I first started in this job 30 years ago, police work was never about revenue enhancement, but if you’re a chief now, you have to look at whether your department produces revenues,” he says. “That’s just the reality nowadays.”
You can see the problem here. You have speed limits that are arbitrarily low, cajoling motorists to speed. You have cops who are instructed to write as many tickets as they can, to see their jobs as revenue generation, not public safety.
— Poor people are disproportionately targeted, disproportionately unable to pay, and therefore disproportionately subject to additional fines, penalties, warrants, arrests and jail time
Just last month, local news station WTSP aired a report on Florida residents who ended up serving jail time over minor traffic offenses. One resident ended up behind bars because she couldn’t afford a $262 ticket for a broken taillight. The report inspired two state senators to introduce legislation to ease the fines and penalties, but it seems unlikely to pass. “They’ve proposed similar legislation before,” the station reported, “but the support wasn’t there because Florida counties depend on traffic fine revenue.”
Indeed, a 2015 investigation by the Miami Herald found countless similar stories of poor people jailed for inability to pay traffic fines. Incredibly, the paper found that 29 percent of drivers in Miami-Dade County had suspended licenses, and 77 percent of those suspensions were due to in inability to pay fees, fines or child support. Failure to pay a single ticket on time can lead to added penalties and fees, including fees to collection agencies. Failure to pay those fees lead to a license suspension, an arrest warrant and jail time. And in Florida, a third offense of driving with a suspended license will result in a felony charge. The investigation inspired another bill in the state legislature last year. It died in committee.
I focus on Florida, because that’s where Sheriff Judd happens to be. But it’s a similar story all over the country. According to a lawsuit filed in Virginia just last year, “A person convicted of reckless driving in Virginia risks no more than a six-month suspension of their license, while a person who fails to pay court costs faces an indefinite suspension, often lasting years. In [fiscal] 2015 alone, the DMV issued 366,773 orders of driver’s license suspensions resulting from unpaid court costs or fines, more than a third of which (38%) were for offenses unrelated to driving.”
Michigan also suspends driver’s licenses for an inability to pay fines and fees. The Daily Beast reported in May that driving with a suspended license results in an additional 30-day suspension and a $1,000 fine. Even once those fines are paid, there’s $125 reinstatement fee, plus another $45 fee to the secretary of state.
For people of means, a $200 or $300 traffic fine may sting, but it isn’t debilitating. For low-income people, it can be crushing. The Daily Beast article tells the story of a woman in Michigan who makes $726 month, but is facing more than $2,000 in traffic fines. The fines and suspended license have prevented her from taking a higher-paying job because it’s farther away and would require her to drive.
Like an addict, once cities and states get hooked on revenue from fines, they start to crave more. The Virginia lawsuit noted above points out that in 1989, the average court costs in the state for a traffic offense were $20. Today, it’s more than $100, plus added fees for a blood draw, jail admission and “even reimbursement of fees paid to attorneys appointed by the state to represent people who are too poor to afford one.”
I wrote a few years ago about getting a speeding ticket in Kentucky. The fine itself was $62. But with the added court costs and assessments, it was over $250. If I hadn’t been able to provide proof of insurance, it would have topped $500. Back in 2012, the San Diego Union-Tribune explained why, because of fees and added costs, a $35 speeding ticket in that city now costs $235. It’s only gotten worse since then. According to a lawsuit filed in California last year, “because of the increase in surcharges and fees associated with traffic tickets in California, a $100 violation now actually costs nearly $500. If a person misses an initial payment deadline, the cost of the ticket increases to $800 or more.” Because of the added fees, one woman who is part of the lawsuit received a $712 ticket for failing to wear her seat belt. The fine for running a red light is still $100, but with the surcharges and fees, it’s really $549. A 2016 study by the Western Center on Law and Poverty found that as of 2014, more than 600,000 Californians had their driver’s licenses suspended, most for the inability to pay fines on other offenses.
This year, Washington, D.C., increased the fine for speeding in a 25-mph zone from $300 to $500. The original proposal was $1,000. The city doubled fines for other infractions. Last year, officials in Nassau County, N.Y., proposed an additional $100 fine on all traffic offenses. In LaGrange County, Ind., most traffic offenses are $35 . . . plus a $135 fee. Several years ago, Massachusetts lawmakers crafted an especially devious policy: To challenge a traffic fine in court, you had to pay a fee that exceeded the cost of most tickets — win or lose. In 2015, I wrote about how Biloxi, Miss., was contracting probation and collection related to traffic infractions to a private company — which then charged the already-struggling people a fee for the “service.” You get the idea. This sort of thing is happening everywhere.
And we haven’t even talked about the effect all those infractions have on insurance premiums. Things have gotten so bad that the Justice Department issued a warning last year about the dangers of becoming dependent on revenue from fines and fees.
In addition to the fact these fines make up a much larger portion of a poor person’s income, wealthier people are also more likely to be able to afford a lawyer to get the charges dropped or reduced, or to prevent them from showing up on a driving record. Despite the fact that these citations can eventually result in an arrest warrant and jail time, so long as they’re misdemeanors, there’s no requirement that states or municipalities provide the indigent with a public defender.
Perhaps more importantly, in most places, you can send a lawyer to fight a ticket without having to show up yourself. For a low-income person who works in the service industry, or who has kids, that can be a huge thing. When I sat in on a municipal court session in Florissant, Mo., a few years ago, it heard the cases in which someone had sent a lawyer first, meaning that poorer people not only didn’t get a lawyer to help them fight the charges, they had to wait while everyone who could afford a lawyer went ahead of them.
Now, combine the fact that poor people and people from marginalized communities are more likely to be unable to afford these tickets with the fact that they’re more likely to be cited for these infractions in the first place. (This post is already too long, so I’m not going to go in to detail here. Either you believe that minorities are disproportionately stopped and fined, or you don’t. But the data and evidence are out there.)
You start to see how “obey the law” misses the point.
— For most people, “just don’t drive” isn’t an option
“Stop driving then” is another common response to stories about people whose licenses were suspended due to an inability to pay. But for most people, that just isn’t an option. Most of the country does not have adequate public transportation. In most cases, if you want to work, you’ll need to get where your job is. That’s particularly true of low-paying, service-industry jobs. Telecommuting isn’t an option. If you have kids, you’ll need to take them to day care or find someone who will watch them when they aren’t at school. If you or they have a medical condition, you’ll need to get to the doctor. America’s infrastructure was built to accommodate the car. Unless you live in one of the few cities with sound public transport, asking people not to drive is asking them to refrain from participating in much of American life.
In any case, the problem isn’t limited to traffic offenses. In St. Louis County, we’ve seen warrants for failure to pay fines stemming from things like violating the occupancy limit on a residence, saggy pants, jaywalking or not subscribing to a town’s garbage collection service. Los Angeles recently started handing out $197 tickets to people for walking through an intersection while the pedestrian light is flashing red. (Not red, flashing red.)
None of this is to say that people who drive recklessly shouldn’t be fined, or that there shouldn’t be some penalty for driving without insurance or without a license. But surely some of this context matters. We have a system that creates traffic offenders almost by design. We have city governments that depend on that system. We have cops instructed to see the people they serve as ATMs for the city council, not as citizens with rights. And we live in a car-dependent landscape, created by government, and governed by lawmakers whose favored form of punishment for falling in debt to the state is to . . . suspend the offender’s driving privileges.
This is why so many people were so angry at Sheriff Judd’s tweet. It’s a stressful and demoralizing thing to live under the threat of an arrest warrant. For the warrant to be over the inability to pay a traffic fine adds an especially destructive layer of indignity.
Now a massive hurricane is coming. And the county sheriff — the man elected to protect the people in his county — just added to that indignity by telling the world that enforcing these warrants is more important than the lives of the people whose names are on them.