Traffic Courts Are Driving Inequality in California

A disproportionate share of fees, fines, and license suspensions fall on blacks and Latinos.
(Photo: Getty Images)
Apr 11, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

For Prentiss Mayo, negative interactions with the criminal justice system are a part of life. The 34-year-old native of Oakland, California, who is black and homeless, has grown accustomed to run-ins with the law ending poorly.

“I’ve been beat up by the police, harassed,” Mayo told TakePart. “Normal stuff that a lot of people go through. But it shouldn’t be normal.”

Last September, Mayo left the train at Oakland’s Coliseum BART station, where he was meeting a friend who’d offered him a ride. Legally blind since he was assaulted and stabbed by a stranger in 2013, Mayo boarded an elevator for disabled transit riders to exit the station. When he reached ground level, police stopped him before he left the station and accused him of not paying because he hadn’t yet taken out his ticket to exit.

“I asked if they could help me sort through the papers in my pocket to find the ticket, but they told me they wouldn’t touch my stuff,” Mayo said. “Then they said, ‘If you go back in your pocket again, we’ll take you down.’ I was terrified.”

Mayo was hit with a $221 ticket for fare evasion. He was unemployed and surviving on social security checks, at the time, of roughly $800 a month, and the fine was unaffordable. In traffic court a month later, Mayo appeared before a judge to contest the fine and was denied. His failure to pay at the hearing tacked on a civil assessment fee of $300, leaving him with a bill that exceeded half his monthly income.

“The judge basically dismissed everything I was saying,” said Mayo. “He accused me of not being blind, saying, ‘You’re a good actor, but don’t you think you’ve carried on this charade long enough?’ I felt belittled—just small.” (The Superior Court of California in Alameda County did not respond to a request for comment.)

The story of Mayo’s escalating fine for a minor transit-related offense, and his inability to afford it, is commonplace in California. A study published Monday by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, a civil legal aid organization, and several partner organizations documents the extent of the problem and its disproportionate impact on black and Latino Californians.

In San Francisco, the report’s authors found, black people make up less than 6 percent of the city’s population yet account for 49 percent of arrests made for failure to pay a fine or appear in court. Civil fines left unpaid also disproportionately lead to the suspension of driver’s licenses for black and Latino Californians, according to the study, with the highest suspension rates concentrated in neighborhoods with high poverty rates and high percentages of black or Latino residents.

“Not only do we know that these fines and fees are harming people economically; we now also have really clear evidence that it’s highly disproportionately racially impactful,” said coauthor Michael Herald of the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “There’s a very consistent pattern where police are stopping blacks in particular at a far higher rate than they do white residents.”

For low-income residents like Mayo, unaffordable fines for low-level violations can set off a cascade of negative consequences.

On top of a fee like the one imposed on Mayo, Herald said, “if you’re a low-income person on food stamps and you can’t afford to make the payments, the judge will take your license away.” That leads to difficulty getting to work in transit-challenged California.

The downward spiral caught the attention of California Gov. Jerry Brown, who last year described the debt trap created by the state’s traffic fine system as “a hellhole of desperation.” In October, Brown launched an amnesty program that allows drivers in a specific low-income bracket to pay 50 to 80 percent of their debt and also offers installment plans for some indebted residents. But according to Herald, the fees are still too high for many, and the problem persists.

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If the dilemma sounds familiar, that’s because it’s happening around the country. In the week after Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014, a report was published documenting a pattern of St. Louis County courts charging excessive fines and fees for low-level offenses. The findings shined a light on the national problem of municipalities generating significant revenue from low-level offenses such as minor traffic violations. As fines and fees stack up, low-income people of color are most likely to wind up in debt or behind bars.

In March of this year, the Department of Justice put the states on notice in a letter that urged state and local jurisdictions to assess whether or not individuals had willfully failed to pay a fine or fee and to consider their indigency status. The letter noted how fines and fees contribute to the cycle of poverty and called on local courts not to use license suspensions to punish drivers with unpaid fees and compel payment.

Though municipal and traffic court judges have discretion to adjust fees on an individual basis or replace them with community service, it rarely happens, according to Mari Castaldi of the East Bay Community Law Center, which has twice appealed Mayo’s case without success.

“The judges are generally unwilling to entertain a discussion of why someone can’t pay,” Castaldi told TakePart. “The safeguard of a judge’s discretion isn’t really happening on the individual level.”