Striking Racial Disparities in California Traffic Courts

The Rodriguez Law Group Profile Image

Practice Areas: Criminal Defense, Sex Crimes

A recent study released by Back on the Road California (BOTRCA) found that a study of San Diego Police data from 2014 found that African American drivers who were pulled over were three times more likely to be searched than White drivers, and Latino drivers were twice as likely to be searched by police officers than their White counterparts. An ACLU study in Fresno found that Latino drivers were 4.3 times more likely to be pulled over for “probable cause” than White drivers were.

Who is Overrepresented? Who is Underrepresented?

The over-representation of African American and Latino drivers in California’s traffic courts is startling. The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department made 4,391 arrests in 2013-2104, pursuant to warrants issued by the court for either a Failure to Appear in court on a traffic infraction (also known as an FTA) or a Failure to Pay a traffic or infraction fine (or an FTP).

Not surprisingly, Black and Latino drivers were the overwhelming proportions of total arrests made for FTA/FTP in Los Angeles County during the time period studied. African Americans, who make up less than 10% of the county’s population, accounted for approximately one-third of the arrests made. Latinos are approximately 49% of the county’s population, but they represented 55% of the arrests made for FTA/FTP. Whites, on the other hand, are roughly 26% of the county’s population, but were only 12% of the arrests made for FTA/FTP violations.

The report goes on to show how the unequal burden of traffic citations affects households according to their ability or inability to pay the fines involved. A $100 fine for a traffic violation can grow, through the addition of fees and assessments, to more than $800 if the initial payment deadline is missed. The DMV then suspends the driver’s license of the person who did not pay, which happened to over 4 million drivers between 2006 and 2013.

The effects of a driver’s license suspensions are to compromise a person’s ability to find work, and to limit their options for getting to the jobs that they may already have. Again, the burden of these suspensions fall heavier on African American and Latino drivers than they should, according to the relevant Census data.

Recommendations for Addressing the Problem

The BOTRCA report offers a series of recommendations for addressing the racial disparities in traffic court cases. The first of these is a call for an end to the practice of suspending driving privileges for those who cannot pay a traffic fine. The report calls this practice “bad policy” and questions its constitutionality. The report supports the passage of SB 881, which calls for other means of collecting traffic fines, such as wage garnishment or tax refund intercepts.

The report also calls for an end to the practice of funding court operations from the collection of court fees. This is described as a conflict of interest for the judicial system, since it provides an incentive for the courts to raise their fees and further increase the already heavy burden that presently falls on communities of color.

The shooting death of Philando Castile, which happened hundreds of miles away from California in the suburbs of Minneapolis, has drawn attention to an uncomfortable fact of life for drivers of color in California and other states: The fines generated by excessive and disparate policing and enforcement practices are a social justice issue, which needs to be addressed by government at all levels.

FEATURED LISTINGS FROM NOLO
Swipe to view more
NOLODRUPAL-web1:DRU1.6.12.2.20161011.41205