DSA-LA Prison Abolition Analysis: Traffic Stops, the Criminal Justice System and the Carceral State

A point of entry for California’s devastating criminal justice system is often a traffic stop. Once this initial contact is made, power is immediately leveraged by law enforcement officers over us as every word, movement, and glance made by us is under the scrutiny of the law enforcement officer. The results of these situations run the gamut of possible state violence and oppression: from assault, to rape, to murder of an individual under the law enforcement officer’s power.  Unfortunately, a moving violation or infraction isn’t even needed to warrant a traffic stop, as law enforcement can initiate a traffic stop with merely “probable cause.”

The DSA-LA Free Break Light Clinic intends to curtail the incidence of state violence in our community by reducing the number of broken tail lights, thus reducing the opportunity for law enforcement agencies to initiate a traffic stop.

However, from a socialist perspective, this point of contact has far reaching economic and exploitative repercussions on the working class.

California's traffic fines and fees are some of the highest in the country, a huge blow to the state’s low-income and middle class communities. California has increased fines and fees for minor offenses to create additional revenue. While California has prided itself on leading the way for certain areas of decriminalization, it has increased fines and fees that create a regressive tax that incentivizes law enforcement to ticket and courts to convict to generate revenue. Moreover, counties often outsource fine and fee collection to private collections agencies, who also have an incentive to profit off of poor and working-class Californians. One researcher with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area found,

 “It captures poor, underemployed … and otherwise disadvantaged defendants for whom fines and supervision are especially burdensome, while permitting well-resourced offenders to exit the process quickly and relatively unscathed. Finally, as courts turn increasingly to fines and fees to fund their own operations, decriminalization threatens to become a kind of regressive tax, turning the poorest populations into funding …  for the judiciary and other government budgets."

The result of this revenue policy devastates the poor. While people who can afford to pay, do, many who cannot face harsh collections practices, including ruined credit and wage garnishment. These consequences can make it difficult to secure housing and employment. Prior to a legislative change that took effect in June of 2017, drivers who could not afford to pay traffic fines also faced driver’s licenses suspension. Once licenses are suspended, individuals may lose their jobs because they need a license to work. Parents cannot drive sick kids to medical appointments. Families must choose between food and traffic fines. Many who lost their licenses due to inability to pay made the difficult decision to continue driving, which could land them in jail for the crime of driving with a suspended license.

In Los Angeles County, Black people are 9.2% of the population yet 33% of those arrested for driving with a suspended license (over-represented by 3.6x). White people are 26.8% of the county’s residents, yet only 14.8% of those arrested for driving with a suspended license (under-represented by 0.6x).From 2013 to 2015, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department arrested and charged nearly 20,000 individuals for driving with a suspended license, the vast majority (85%) of whom were drivers of color.

Although the recent legislative victory means that drivers can no longer lose their licenses for failure to pay traffic fines, drivers can still lose their licenses if they fail to appear in court. This system continues to discriminate on the basis of wealth, because higher-income individuals can simply pay their tickets online or by mailing a check without facing the consequence of license suspension, whereas lower-income individuals who can’t afford to pay the ticket must physically appear in court. If a person misses her court appearance because of a work conflict, transportation issues, disability, or another reason, she risks losing her license due to her failure to appear.

In California, it is a misdemeanor offense to fail to appear (“FTA”) in court or fail to pay (“FTP”) an infraction ticket. Courts may issue a bench warrant for these misdemeanor offenses, which gives a law enforcement officer authority to arrest a person. African-Americans are four to sixteen times more likely to be booked into county jail on a charge related to inability to pay a citation.

Additionally, as soon as a person fails to appear or pay, California law authorizes counties to add an automatic $300 “civil assessment” that can only be waived if the defendant proves that she had “good cause” for failing to appear in court or pay the fine. Most counties automatically charge the full $300 penalty every time a person is late in paying the ticket, which can more than double the original ticket amount and makes it even more difficult for people to climb out from under their mounting court debt.

In California, it remains a misdemeanor offense to drive with a suspended license, even if the sole reason for the suspension is an inability to pay a citation fine. Judicial officers can issue bench warrants for the individual’s failure to appear or pay an infraction citation. Individuals who cannot afford to pay an infraction citation are being arrested, jailed, and prosecuted, and are being driven deeper into debt. The communities impacted by these policies are disproportionately communities of color.

As one can see, a simple traffic stop can snowball into an avalanche of exploitation (including jail time) by the state’s judicial system.

Recommendations for legislative change:

  1. End license suspension for failure to appear, when a court appearance would only be required for individuals who don’t pay the ticket in advance. Using license suspension as a punishment for failure to appear under these circumstances disproportionately affects low-income communities and communities of color, and it is not necessary to ensure public safety. Create and enact a state law that prohibits courts from referring licenses to the DMV for suspension because of failure to appear on infraction violations and restore licenses for people who only have suspensions because the could not appear. License suspension should be a public safety issue not a punitive economic issue.
  2. Police agencies and courts must cease issuing warrants and making arrests for failure to pay or appear or for driving with a suspended license for failure to pay or appear.
  3. Enact a state law to repeal or reform the current “civil assessment” system, which adds a $300 penalty whenever a driver fails to pay an infraction ticket or appear in court on an infraction.
  4. End the practice of outsourcing fine and fee collection to private, for-profit collections companies. Put pressure on Los Angeles County to stop contracting with its private collection agency, G.C. Services, and push for state legislation that would make it unlawful for counties to contract with private for-profit collections companies (or that would significantly restrict the collections tools that these companies may use).
  5. Restrict the circumstances under which people’s cars can be towed for unpaid parking tickets, taking away their major asset and means of transportation, and driving them further into debt and poverty. In addition, limit the amount of fees that private towing companies can charge.
Paying More for Being Poor/Report – Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, May 2017
Stopped, Fined, Arrested/Report – East Bay Community Law Center, April 2016
Not Just a Ferguson Problem: How Traffic Courts Drive Inequality in California/Report -- Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights