Original article appeared in TheNewspaper.com.
Low-income and minority motorists are being targeted by California’s traffic ticket industry, a coalition of civil rights groups contended in a report earlier this month. The Back on the Road California coalition is pushing for reform of a system of escalating traffic fines, fees and license suspensions that perpetuates a cycle of poverty. From 2013 to 2014, 4.9 million traffic and parking tickets were issued statewide, with certain racial groups finding themselves stopped more often than others.
“The troubling result is that this kind of intensified policing and racial profiling of people of color means black and Latino people are more likely than white people to get traffic citations despite the fact that there is no documented difference in driving behavior,” the coalition report explains. “A racially skewed system of traffic stops appears to be producing a racially skewed demography of suspended driver’s licenses.”
The report includes an online interactive map to back up the claim that driver’s license suspension rates are disproportionately high in black and Latino communities. The data likewise show a driver is much more likely to be arrested for driving on a suspended license for failure to pay a traffic ticket if he is black or Latino.
California has some of the nation’s most expensive traffic tickets. A photo enforcement citation issued for making a rolling right turn a fraction of a second after it turns red, for example, starts at $500. Motorists miss the payment deadline either have $300 automatically added to the total fine amount or a judge may issue an arrest warrant and suspend the driver’s license. The state suspended 4.2 million licenses over failure to pay a ticket from 2006 to 2013.
Motorists often depend on their car to drive to work and earn a living. If caught driving on a suspended license, they face a $1000 fine, arrest and higher insurance premiums. Los Angeles County arrested 19,108 motorists for driving on a license suspended over unpaid tickets between 2013 and 2015. Black motorists accounting for a third of arrests even though they comprise only 9 percent of the county population.
“The price of incarcerating tens of thousands of individuals for what is essentially a crime of poverty is enormous,” the report contends. “At a time when California is investing significant resources in reducing its prison and jail populations, the policy of incarcerating people for driving with poverty-based suspended licenses is out of sync.”
The report asks state lawmakers to stop the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for reasons unrelated to public safety, so that police officers and the courts no longer act as “debt collection agents.”
The coalition consists of the East Bay Community Law Center, Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, Western Center on Law and Poverty and A New Way of Life Reentry Project.