From a reader:

On Driver’s License Suspensions, Traffic Stops, and Inequality in America

June 22, 2015 | Revolution Newspaper |


The May 25 issue of Revolution newspaper/ has the important article “Driver’s License Suspensions—Another Pathway to Mass Incarceration“ which notes that across the country, and especially in states with large prison populations, the suspension of driver’s licenses is a means of punishment for those unable to pay fines resulting from any number of different infractions. As the Revolution article explains it, “Having your driver’s license suspended can pose a serious, often impossible burden on anyone, especially on those without the option of public transportation. And for people who are already straining to keep their lives together, it can be devastating—and lead not only to losing a job, but to being sent to, or back to jail.”

Here’s another area where the courageous uprising of the people of Ferguson in response to the murder of Michael Brown has had an important impact. It forced a light into the ugly recess of racial injustice where police, courts, and local governments systematically harass, brutalize, and bleed the Black community with arrests, warrants, and fines.

Writing in the Huffington Post, civil rights attorney Oren Nimni wrote of Ferguson: “Residents are routinely charged with minor administrative infractions. Most of the arrest warrants stem from traffic violations, but nearly every conceivable human behavior is criminalized. An offense can be found anywhere, including citations for ‘Manner of Walking in Roadway,’ ‘High Grass and Weeds,’ and 14 kinds of parking violations.” Nimni observes, “This complete penetration of policing into everyday life establishes a world of unceasing terror and violence.”

The Revolution article makes clear that this “world of unceasing terror and violence” extends well beyond Ferguson and its surroundings.

Indeed, a recent report by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights entitled “Not Just a Ferguson Problem—How Traffic Courts Drive Inequality in California” notes: “While the nation ridiculed similar practices brought to light by a Justice Department report on Ferguson, Missouri, California’s system of traffic courts and fine collection are similar, and in some ways even worse. In addition to driving-related citations, infractions such as littering, sleeping outdoors, and failure to pay a transit fare can result in excessive fines that, if unpaid, result in criminal warrants or suspended driver’s licenses and create a vicious cycle of poverty.”

The report goes on to say, “In recent years ... the cost of traffic tickets and associated fees has steadily increased. A ticket with a $100 base fine actually costs nearly $500 after statutory fees and assessments, and $815 if the individual misses the initial deadline to appear in court or pay the ticket...” And even where fines for infractions are evenly enforced—and usually they are not—it is the poor, and most often people of color, who, unable to pay, find themselves facing escalating fines and the suspension of their driver’s license with devastating effects.

Take the case of Maria, cited in the Lawyers’ Committee report. She was terminated from a construction job because her driver’s license was suspended for unpaid tickets and she couldn’t drive to job sites. Unable to work, and with two kids to support, she has no way of paying the debt, nor could she appeal to the court because she cannot get a court date until her fine is paid in full.

The scale of license suspensions in California is truly staggering—4.2 million people, one of every six drivers—have lost licenses due to suspension, a great many because they are unable to pay fines imposed on them. The total of these unpaid fines is an astounding $10 billion! In most cases, people faced with such fines are not even allowed to challenge their validity or seek relief in court since in most California counties access to a court hearing is denied until the fine is paid in full.

In the post-recession era, many municipalities have increased fines and penalties to make up for budget shortfalls. And they are doing so by preying on the sections of the population most devastated by the crisis. Black people as a community lost half their meager household wealth between 2004 and 2009 due to the loss of homes and jobs.

And it’s not only in poor municipalities where Black people are preyed on. In San Francisco, certainly one of the wealthiest cities in the U.S. and the world, 70 percent of people seeking legal assistance for driver’s license suspensions are African-Americans even though they make up just six percent of the population.

Traffic Stops and Racial Profiling

Or consider another dimension to the use of traffic stops and the like that have devastating and even deadly consequences. In 2014, three sociologists at the University of Kansas surveyed more than 2,300 drivers in and around Kansas City. They found that while stops over traffic safety violations showed little racial disparity, when it came to stops over minor violations, like expired license plate stickers, Black drivers were pulled over twice as often.

What gives here? In police parlance there are traffic safety stops and there are “investigatory stops.” In these, drivers are stopped for exceedingly minor violations—driving too slowly, malfunctioning lights, failure to signal, broken tail lights—very often just a pretext for investigations of the driver and the vehicle. Sanctioned by courts and institutionalized in most police departments, these investigatory stops are aimed at “suspicious” drivers and allegedly meant to stop crime, not traffic offenses.

The difference between the two kinds of stops is dramatic. Investigatory stops involve searches, impromptu interrogations, and occasionally handcuffs and weapons. And, one might add, death, as in the case of Walter Scott, who was shot dead in North Charleston, South Carolina, in early April, following a traffic stop for a supposedly broken brake light.

As the Revolution article concluded, “There are in reality two systems of justice in this country, rooted from the beginning in the system of slavery and the legal structure to enforce it. And it has continued through Jim Crow segregation, up to today. The consequences of these ‘inconveniences’—having your driver’s licenses revoked, overwhelming fees piled on, and a warrant issued, all leading to time in jail, loss of a job, and even greater difficulty finding another one—is one way that intolerable conditions of life are enforced for millions of Black people in the inner cities, and now for a massive number of Latinos as well. The connection between the ‘crime’ of the regular workings of the criminal justice system and the mass incarceration and wanton murder by police is as clear as it is unjust, and unacceptable.” And one might add, this is another pathway in what Carl Dix of the Revolutionary Communist Party and Stop Mass Incarceration Network has called a slow genocide taking place in this country against Black and Latino people.




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