The tyranny of a traffic ticket

A single ticket can turn into years and years of legal battles.

…The system can also make these encounters happen frequently, and with increasing weight in a person’s life. It begins with one ticket or a traffic stop. But if someone can’t afford to pay that fine, police might try to stop or arrest him or her again to get the person to pay up.

This can lead to someone getting fined again for not paying up the first time. And again. And again. One ticket leads to a vicious cycle that can sink someone for life.

With each of these encounters, someone’s record piles up — giving officers more reason, in their view, to stop him or her, because they recognize the person, or perhaps see the person’s record when running a license plate, for example. And with each of these stops, people are exposed to more instances in which a police encounter could go tragically wrong.

And it happens disproportionately to poor people of color.

…Castile is stopped. He can’t afford to pay the fine. His license is suspended. He’s then stopped and fined for driving without a license. He again can’t pay that fine. And so on. All along the way, Castile is buried further into debt and punished with more penalties — just because he couldn’t afford that first ticket.

“It’s a never-ending loop,”

…Court records show that she twice attempted to make partial payments of $25 and $50, but the court returned those payments, refusing to accept anything less than payment in full. One of those payments was later accepted, but only after the court’s letter rejecting payment by money order was returned as undeliverable. This woman is now making regular payments on the fine. As of December 2014, over seven years later, despite initially owing a $151 fine and having already paid $550, she still owed $541.

…Police in North Carolina — where researchers obtained their data — had a significantly lower threshold for searching black and Hispanic drivers compared to white drivers. 

…”Sometimes we’ll hear the assertion that if you’re not doing anything wrong, the police won’t stop you. That is clearly untrue,” Natapoff said. “Police stop individuals, particularly individuals in communities of color, for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with whether that individual is committing a crime.”

…Officers are frequently evaluated for their productivity based on how many stops and arrests they make. Knowing this, they’re more likely to seek easy arrests and infractions in low-income, black neighborhoods with little political power compared with a wealthy, white community that’s very likely to complain to the mayor’s office and be taken seriously by public officials.

…Cops were pressured by the city government — as they are in other jurisdictions — to raise as much revenue as possible by ticketing residents.

Since police were most active in neighborhoods that are predominantly black, these residents were targeted at hugely disproportionate rates: Ferguson is about 67 percent African-American, but from 2012 to 2014, 85 percent of people who were stopped, 90 percent of people who received a citation, and 93 percent of people who were arrested were black.

…One black man in his mid-50s was stopped 30 times in less than four years, despite never being charged for anything.

One reason for such frivolous stops and citations may be what’s known as a “pretextual stop,” when cops stop someone for a minor violation — such as a broken taillight — as a pretext to investigate the suspect’s possible involvement in a more serious crime.

…Another issue is what criminologists call “net widening”: Increasingly, local, state, and federal governments have criminalized more and more behaviors that are part of everyday life, adding harsh fines and possible jail time to misdemeanors and crimes that weren’t punished so harshly or even at all before. 

…With red light cameras, all infractions are ticketed, no matter the circumstance.

“We’re casting a net even wider and criminalizing more people,” Gonzales Van Cleve said. “It doesn’t mean they’re often put into jail, but they certainly are punished by the fact that they have to go to court, they have to pay these fines.”

…The excessive enforcement of low-level offenses can help explain why black people are disproportionately likely to be shot and killed by the police.

…So not only are we burdening individuals with arrest records and individual records, not only are we holding them to the burden of fines and fees that impoverish them or impede their economic prospects, we are also exposing them, sadly, to the greatest risk of all — a violent encounter with a police officer.”

There’s a law of averages at play: If there’s a small chance that police will shoot someone during any given stop, those who are stopped more often by police are exposed to this chance — however small it may be — much more frequently.

The tyranny of a traffic ticket – Vox


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