In many parts of the country, driving is less of a joyful experience and more of a necessary evil. The traffic is soul sucking, the highway exhaust fumes horrendous, and the radio plays the same songs too many damn times.
Yet a huge portion of our lives would come to a screeching halt if we didn't have the freedom to drive around.
Earlier this year, the Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights in California, an advocacy group, released a report about the kind of people who lose their driving privileges in California. Through its research, the group found that in many minority communities across the state, "driver's license suspension rates range as high as five times the state average." Widespread police practices that pull over minorities at higher rates than white people exacerbate the problem, the report notes.
We've all heard of "driving while black." But thanks to the report, along with a lawsuit filed last week by the American Civil Liberties Union of California and other organizations against the Solano County Superior Court, we're starting to learn about the long-term societal impact not driving has on communities of color.
The problem comes down to questionable decisions being made in local traffic courts across the state, and the life changing consequences that get attached to minor infractions.
Too often, these traffic courts are being used to prop up troubled state and local budgets on the backs of poor minorities who get caught up in the system, the groups contend. Over half of the court and traffic fees collected between 2013 and 2014 went to state coffers, the majority of which went towards operating the courts themselves, and constructing even more courts, says the ACLU in the lawsuit.
“We tend to think a lot about things like sentencing reform on a mass level, or mass incarceration, which are all very important, but things like traffic court begin to fall through the cracks,” said Micaela Davis, a staff attorney with the ACLU Northern California. “And that’s often where the rubber is hitting the road for our poorest communities.”
Last year, California Governor Jerry Brown launched an amnesty program that would allow some suspended drivers to pay only 50 to 80% of what they owed, and to open a process that would let some people get their licenses reinstated.
But for some, even that concession is not enough, since the fees were so high to begin with. Charles Cotton, a 63-year old disabled black veteran, owed San Francisco about $6,000 for a few tickets and additional fees, and separately owed the city of Stockton about $4,000 before the amnesty. (Court and traffic ticket fees in the state are outrageous. One missed court date can add up to a $800 fee, on top of what was already owed.)
“I was shocked when I learned how much I owed,” said Cotton. He still owes thousands of dollars to the cities, while barely getting by on social security checks. “It doesn’t feel like amnesty and I’m not the only one who feels this way.”
Cotton is right: even with the amnesty, the impact of these fines and fees is acute. In San Francisco, black people only make up only 5.8% of the population. Yet this small handful of black residents accounts for a whopping 48.7% of those arrested for driving with a suspended license resulting from a “failure to appear/pay” for a previous traffic court warrant, according to the LCCR report.
The following maps from the report illustrate the suspension problem throughout the Bay Area:
Almost exclusively, the areas with higher minority populations are the ones with the most suspensions, though black people are affected significantly more, according to the LCCR. San Francisco's black population is targeted at a rate 8.4 times its size, while Latinos are more slightly overrepresented—by 1.2 times. (Whites are underrepresented at a rate of 0.6.)
The issue of suspensions is most pressing in quickly gentrifying places like the Bay Area, suggested Davis.
“These communities are getting pushed further and further away from urban centers due to gentrification, and so people are needing to drive further and further for work,” she said. “So not having a license really impacts someone’s ability to maintain economic stability.”
Spurred by this and other research, the ACLU of Northern California and other partner groups started looking into counties across the state. In April, they sent letters to 17 of them, charging that the license suspension practices in local courts were unconstitutional and demanding changes. Last week, they jointly filed a suit against Solano County, which borders the Bay Area and which suspended the licenses of over 11,000 mostly poor people in 2015 for failure to pay alone, argues the lawsuit. The county has yet to respond to the litigation.
The issue of state abuse of traffic and court fees received national attention after Ferguson, Mo. erupted in unrest in 2014. Notoriously, the city issued more arrest warrants for minor infractions than the city had people in 2013. Revenue generated from those warrants and court fees accounted for a quarter of the tiny city's annual budget. In response, Missouri passed a law changing the percent of a municipality’s budget that can come from such fees.
But the ACLU lawsuit about the disproportionate impact suspended licenses have on black and Latino communities—a first in California—seeks to go a step further and deem the practice unconstitutional.
“Our top line ask is that the courts simply stop referring people for license suspension for failure to pay and failure to appear for traffic citations,” Davis said. “There are other ways for people to comply with the court’s order without having their license suspended, which just drives people further into poverty.”
Studies have shown that people who have their licenses suspended have a harder time finding and keeping jobs.
Other options that the ACLU is suggesting include offering payment plans, addressing the exorbitant fees themselves, and creating a system to determine how much money should be paid based on income early on in the process. (Community service programs can sometimes work, but widespread use can run dangerously close to exploitation of poor people for cheap and menial labor.)
The bottom line is that courts have discretion about whether to issue suspensions in all these cases, and they should be using it more, the ACLU says.
A change to law would have a big impact on people like Charles Cotton.
He is slowly making monthly payments to both cities where he owes money to. He also got his license back, even though he can’t afford a car. One day soon, he hopes, he will be able to drive himself around legally.
“You look over your shoulder,” he explained. “At the age of 63 I’m tired of looking over my shoulder.”
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.