Stopped, Fined, Arrested – Racial Bias in Policing and Traffic Courts in California

Media Contact: Candice Francis / Communications Director, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area; 415.543.9697 x216 / cfrancis@lccr.com

The Burden of Race When Driving in California 

New study reveals dramatic racial and economic disparities related to unpaid traffic fines and fees

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – Across the nation, an epidemic of injustice has been exposed – the practice of saddling low income people with traffic fines, fees and penalties so steep they are driven deeper into poverty. Making things worse are the arrests and jail time that often follow, leaving people vulnerable to losing their homes and their jobs.

Now, adding insult to injury, the findings of a new groundbreaking report Stopped, Fined, Arrested – Racial Bias in Policing and Traffic Courts in California released today by Back on the Road California* (BOTRCA), a consortium of civil legal aid organizations, reveals dramatic racial and socioeconomic disparities in driver’s license suspensions and arrests related to unpaid traffic fines and fees.

The volume of data supporting this study is available to the public for the first time. Public records from the California Department of Motor Vehicles and U.S. Census data demonstrate that in primarily Black and Latino communities, driver’s license suspension rates range as high as five times the state average. Moreover, data collected from 15 police and sheriff’s departments across California show that Black motorists are far more likely to be arrested for driving with a suspended license for failure to pay an infraction citation than White motorists.

This new data and this interactive map show the correlation between rates of driver’s license suspensions due to a failure to appear or pay a ticket to poverty indicators and race, supporting the assertion that Black and Latino
motorists are disproportionately arrested for driving with a suspended license and for warrants for failure to appear or pay on an infraction citation.

“It is a misdemeanor offense to drive with a suspended license in California, even when the only reason for the suspension is an unpaid fine,” says Elisa Della-Piana, Legal Director at LCCR. “Law enforcement officers have discretion about whether to arrest someone on a warrant or driving on a suspended license for an unpaid ticket, and this new data shows that people of color—especially black people—are disproportionately arrested and impacted. It’s a modern-day form of debtors’ prison.”

“The long-lasting detrimental impacts of disparate policies and practices on California’s residents, families, communities, economy and public trust in law enforcement and the courts, cannot be underestimated,” says Theresa Zhen, Skaddon Fellow at ANWOL. “Income and job loss, reduced health, psychological harm and family separation, arrests and incarceration due to unpaid infraction debt carries significant collateral consequences that burden California’s economy and judicial system while doing very little to further public safety or the interests
of justice.”

Last year, BOTRCA released Not Just a Ferguson Problem: How Traffic Courts Drive Inequality in California. The report detailed how revenue collection incentives have turned California traffic courts into a two-tiered system that works for people who have money and fails those without. It showed that significantly increased fines
and penalties, combined with policies that required full payment of all fines and fees before the validity of a citation could be challenged, resulted in over 4.2 million suspended driver’s licenses simply because people could not afford to pay or fight an infraction ticket.

“In the year since our last report, lawmakers have offered limited relief to ameliorate the consequences of these draconian policies, but more needs to be done,” says Michael Herald, Policy Advocate at WCLP. “Our first recommendation
is the abolishment of using license suspension as a debt collection tool. As co-sponsors of SB881, authored by Senator Hertzberg, BOTRCA is hoping to repeal the practice of suspending driver’s licenses for Failure to Pay (FTP) or Failure to Appear (FTA), and restore driver’s licenses to people with existing license
suspensions due to a FTP or FTA.”
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Link to interactive map can be found here.

*This coalition includes: A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project (ANWOL), The East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC), Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area (LCCR), Legal Services for Prisoners with Children (LSPC), and the Western Center on Law and Poverty (WCLP).