Petty Law Enforcement vs. the Poor

How the state's desire to manage our movement harms the poor

The New York Times recently noted a new trend in Los Angeles: strict enforcement of jaywalking laws downtown, including the little-known regulation that makes it a crime to enter a crosswalk after the red crosswalk light is flashing—even if that red light, as it often does in L.A., is counting down the seconds until the light changes.

A normal person might assume the city was giving you useful information to make an intelligent judgment as to whether you can make it across the street safely before the light changes. In effect, though, the countdown light is just entrapment to commit an expensive—$197—infraction.

The New York Times story focused on bourgeois downtown residents and shoppers. (New York itself is a city that manages to thrive despite pretty much never enforcing its own jaywalking laws.) The story didn’t mention that an earlier wave of jaywalking enforcement in Los Angeles began back in 2006, under the aegis of the “Safe Cities Initiative.”

L.A. police had already been issuing over a thousand tickets per month for jaywalking in the name of homeless management. A 2007 study from UCLA law professor emeritus Gary Blasi, “Policing Our Way Out of Homelessness? The First Year of the Safer Cities Initiative on Skid Row,” found such jaywalking or other petty citations given at rates 48 to 69 times those in the rest of the city. It noted that “of the 1,000 people per month who receive citations and are unable to pay the fines, most will face subsequent arrest and jail, even though the original offense may have been littering or a pedestrian signal.”

Some of those ticketed were in wheelchairs or otherwise disabled, or pushing a cart full of all their possessions in front of them as they tried to struggle across the street, says Pete White of Los Angeles Community Action Network, a poverty activist group. Blasi found the timing of skid row lights to be the absolute minimum imaginable for anyone to get across a street.

As damaging as the fines themselves can be, says White, his group also hates strict pedestrian law enforcement because it’s “an excuse for search, harassment, and intimidation of the poor” in a situation where a population of thirteen to fifteen thousand people downtown were receiving nearly that many citations a year.

Lawyer Carol Sobel, who helps represent many downtown L.A. residents who receive such citations, says you can often beat the rap if you go to court (usually because officers don’t show up, or your lawyer can prove they gave a citations that wasn’t legally warranted). But if you cannot beat the rap or pay the fine, that simple ticket for stepping off a curb can lead to an arrest warrant—which many activists think was in part the point of the city's crackdown to begin with, a component in a general plan of clearing the homeless out of downtown L.A.

Contemplating how something as simple as a ticket for a couple hundred bucks could effectively ruin a life reminded me of the last time I was in traffic court, for driving a car in California with an expired license plate. I heard brief versions of the stories that brought dozens of my fellow citizens before the judge, some facing imprisonment, most just facing fines of more than a thousand dollars (that could lead to imprisonment if not paid).

Every single story that brought them there—overwhelmingly minorities and, my guess based on their demeanor and stories, working class—began with a “small fine” for some traffic-related infraction that, not dispatched with prompt bourgeois responsibility, ballooned to larger fines and/or arrest warrants.

Do the crime, pay the fine, many might think. Why wouldn’t they? Maybe the fine represented too large a part of their disposable income to be dealt with in time, or maybe they just aren’t that skilled at remembering to take care of expensive problems promptly.

Imposing “small fines” for our (often objectively harmless in and of itself) behavior as we move through the world or through traffic is one of the most significant ways Americans interact with the state. Even if the fines don’t balloon to bigger fines and eventual arrest warrants, such interactions open up Americans to violations of dignity (like being publicly jacked up and handcuffed), privacy (you are supposed to identify yourself and give the cops a chance to look into your background), and possibly liberty.

That’s if the traffic stop degenerates into a search, and it’s easy for cops to make that so. The Supreme Court decided in the 1996 case Whren v. U.S. that no matter what a cops’ real motive for pulling you over was, even if he’s really just scrabbling for an excuse to get a closer look at you or your car, if you in fact committed a moving violation, that’s totally cool.

As David A. Harris pointed out in a 1997 article in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology called “’Driving While Black’ and All Other Traffic Offense: the Supreme Court and Pretextual Traffic Stops,” a driver is pretty much always committing a moving violation, since they can include actions as vague and open to interpretation as not giving “full time and attention to the operation of the vehicle.”

This means that “any citizen [is] fair game for a stop, almost anytime, anywhere, virtually at the whim of police. Given how important an activity driving has become," Harris wrote, "Whren changes the Fourth Amendment’s rule that police must have a reason to forcibly interfere in our business.” As Harris goes on to note, and as many studies have indicated, that is going to have a disproportionate effect on minorities which, given American socioeconomics, can mean a disproportionate effect on the poor.

As will the state’s demands that we pay them off in various ways for permission to drive, a core element of modern working life for many. Tom Nordlie, a former assistant public defender in Florida in the 1990s  (and, disclosure, an old college buddy), remembers nearly a third of misdemeanor cases he represented involved people driving with licenses suspended (DWLS). A first offense could net two months in jail and a $500 fine—even though the crime did not necessarily cause any harm to anyone.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Paul.||

    When the state starts looking for sources of revenue, your dignity and liberty are secondary concerns.

  • SusanM||

    When were they ever concerns to these people?

  • JWatts||

    Are they looking for revenue or are they attempting to run off the poor?

    "L.A. police had already been issuing over a thousand tickets per month for jaywalking in the name of homeless management."

    If you drive the homeless out of the area, then you reduce your local costs.

  • Paul.||

    Are they looking for revenue or are they attempting to run off the poor?


  • Austrian Anarchy||

    So that Lethal Weapon movie with the detectives in uniform patrolling the streets as punishment was a how-to? IIRC, the way to avoid the ticket is to walk without a driver's license.

  • Agammamon||

    Its why I keep my DL in the car instead of my wallet.

    But . . . they can always arrest you (for jaywalking, not in general) and hold you until they verify your identity.

  • playa manhattan||

    You don't want to try that in CA. Believe me.

  • Ayn Random Variation||

    This brings back a memory. My grandmother moved from the Bronx to LA sometime in the early to mid 80's, and she got a jaywalking ticket her first week there.
    So I'm thinking that is nothing new. Just LAPD thugs thugging like always.

  • The Knarf Yenrab||

    including the little-known regulation that makes it a crime to enter a crosswalk after the red crosswalk light is flashing—even if that red light, as it often does in L.A., is counting down the seconds until the light changes.

    If LA were serious about increasing revenues to support essential social services, they'd change the flashing red light to a picture of Big Bird beckoning children and Feinstein supporters into the crosswalk.

  • James_R||

    It sounds like our state and local governments view us citizens as nothing more than sources of revenue. If they watch any of us walk or drive long enough they will eventually have a flimsy justification to by-pass the constitution, search our belongings and extract money from us. Imagine one day when we have cameras on every street corner in America. Politicians and bureaucrats can and will use these freedom cams to keep tabs on their enemies and harass them with searches, seizures, fines and jail and they'll do it with the full backing of the state.

  • Agammamon||

    I'm of the opinion that every camera that the government emplaces needs to be hooked up to the internet to allow regular citizens to also watch the feed.

  • Don'tTreadOnMe||

    Intriguing idea. Why not? After all they are 'our' cameras, no?

  • ||

    What makes you think they're "our" cameras? More relevantly, what makes you think the images recorded by the cameras belong to (and are free to be distributed by) anyone but the U.S. Gov't?

    I buy a cell phone from Verizon and call my brother. The only entity able to exclusively hold the information and meta-information generated as a result of that phone call is the Gov't.

  • ||

    I don't think the cameras should be there in the first place. I think the idea of wiring cameras to the internet creates a lot of added complexity (servers, bandwidth, uptime, firewalls, throttling...) and cost for not a lot of added benefit. I certainly think that a splice so that concerned citizens could host their own street corners on the web or local networks on their own dime (so long as they don't interrupt or adulterate the native information) makes sense.

    But I have some ideas about lottery winnings and hedonistic behavior that will probably happen 100X over before any of the above actually happens.

  • The Knarf Yenrab||

    It sounds like our state and local governments view us citizens as nothing more than sources of revenue.

    I believe the preferred nomenclature is "tax cattle."

  • perlhaqr||

    That's possibly even better than "Human ATM".

  • Will Nonya||

    I don't think that's the case. I think the revenue is secondary. When they look at you the first think they see is a nuisance or an inconvenient obstruction to their rule. That they can extract revenue from us in exchange for this is just icing on their cake.

  • Bra Ket||

    In california they directly come out with increases to the fines in sessions where they are trying to close a budget gap. It can't be more obvious. After the last budget crisis they decided a rolling stop should cost $500. During better economic times that wouldn't even garner a ticket from the cameras.

    And why are there such big budget gaps in California? Overgenerous pension plans being systemically abused by govt employees.

    Connect the dots there and we have a govt of people abusively fining the public in order to personally pocket the cash.

  • R C Dean||

    It is appalling the way people with very limited resources get ass-raped by these kinds of offenses.

    A couple of parking tickets that you put off paying because your, you know, poor. Then they boot and tow your car, adding hundreds to your bill. Then you have to take off work and/or you lose your job because it takes at least half a day to get your car back. And we'll pretend that no damage was done that you need to fix.

    So, for a couple of victimless "offenses", you, who started out with nearly nothing, are now out hundreds of dollars best case. Worst case, you've lost your job.

    And this happens All. The. Time.

  • Invisible Finger||

    Yep. Drug courts are full of people busted for a nickel bag that can't come up with the $1K fine unless they mug or burglarize a few people.

  • Acosmist||

    Yeah parking tickets != jaywalking fines

  • Don'tTreadOnMe||

    Just served 3 months on a county grand jury. Saw this happen All. The. Time. Really. This is such bullshit. Many of our cases started with the story…the defendant was pulled over for 1. failing to yield, 2. excessive speed, 3. Window tint violation (really), 4. failure to use a turn signal , 5. BS, 6. BS….you get the point…..and we smelled drugs or the defendant 'agreed' to a search of their vehicle or the dog that happened to be in our car yelped……and guess what?! Mary Jane was found. You goin' to jail, boy. Repeat.

  • PaulW||

    I had a cop pull me over and claim he smelled marijuana. He said that he'd need to search my car and asked me to get out. So I did, thinking, whatever, I don't have anything in there anyway. Then he forced me to place my hands on the hood of the car in the middle of the day during rush hour and stay like that for the 15 minutes it took him to search the car.

    I was young at the time, now I'd tell him to, in a more polite manner, fuck off until he got a warrant.

  • Rufus J. Fisk||

    This has happened to me countless times when i was barely making any money working up the job food chain.

  • James_R||

    Yeah, that would be awesome. We'd have millions of bored senior citizens glued to their screens reporting our infractions all day long.

  • bigac||

    I got this in an email from the City of Fort Worth today:

    "The City of Fort Worth is offering training on January 25th for citizens interested in being a Code Ranger."

    Apparently they actively troll for people willing to snitch.

  • Don'tTreadOnMe||

    That's just a spam from an old KGB source….

  • OneOut||

    The present administration has had a web site up in the past asking people to report other people they know who find fault with the administration. They state that it's because they want the people to report what the non believers say so that the administration can tell you what to say back to them to refute their non belief..they say they want the truth to come out....or so they can audit their taxes...or supim

  • ||


  • seguin||

    Oooh ooh ooh! Can I be the Pink Code Ranger?

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

  • John Galt||

    Kills me watching YouTube videos of rich kids racing across the country at 100 plus miles per hour knowing they'll be fined all along the way and happily doing it, even giggling and making fun when they get pulled over several times in a short stretch of just a few miles.

    It'd be great to have their money, most of us don't. To be honest, I can't afford to be ticketed once for even just a little over the limit.

    While I certainly appreciate the ability we have to be wealthy I'm not sure I appreciate the way wealth can buy the wealthy American out of suffering serious penalties for everything from illegal parking to premeditated homicide.

    We should all be equals where the law is concerned. Just treatment should never have a price tag.

  • PaulW||

    Yep, any infractions should be x amount of lashings, like the good old days. Pain is equal no matter how much money you have.

    /tongue in cheek

  • John Galt||


    Oh, you were just kidding...

  • PaulW||

    Only kidding sorta kinda. It does make the most sense from an equality under the law standpoint, but can you imagine the hoopla when you whip granny for parking next to a fire hydrant?

  • James_R||

    So if you were brought up on serious charges you would be just fine accepting whatever public defender the state provided you with?

  • John Galt||

    No. And that's the point.

    Different levels of justice for the wealthy, or even those who just happen to be politically connected, is fundamentally unjust.

  • steedamike||

    You have no inherent right to the services that money can provide, such as expensive lawyers that rich people can afford. Just like you can't expect to work at a minimum wage job and just have society give you a Porsche. All that you have a right to is to be able to attain those things if you had the money without barriers other than yourself.

  • EmilyRay||

    In Mexico fines are determined by a persons daily income. Why cant that happen here. A $500 fine for somebody living on a fixed income is beyond reasonable when SSI only pays a person about $700 a month. I have had several large fines in my life, the Judges in those cases allowed me to make payments. But, I am not a person of color and knew enough about the way of the court system to ask for this help. My mother was a legal secretary. Many times people who are homeless also suffer from mental illness that can interfere with there ability to interact with the court system. It doesn't make sense to add more burdens upon these people with petty law enforcement, and it actually maybe in violation of Section II of the ADA to not consider a persons disability when it comes to interaction with the legal system.

  • steedamike||

    That would be discrimination.

  • Rational||

    Doesn't seem to matter as long as those being discriminated against are the "wealthy".

  • Rational||

    Yeah, here in Cali (I'm moving in March thank goodness) the CHP encourages you to snitch on people with out of state plates.

  • Overtaxed||

    It's even worse than it seems. When I was young a poor (IE, drove a beater of a car) I used to get pulled over all the time. All kinds of BS, tail light out (it wasn't), tires too bald (I kid you not), tint, rolling stop, etc.. Typically wouldn't get a ticket (likely because the cop would see that I was a white college student, not an "undesirable") but would get hassled on a regular basis.

    Fast forward to today. I'm about 40 years old and drive a 100K car. I've been pulled over once in the past 5 years. And, if anything, I drive with less care today than I did as a youth. The cop that pulled me over (for an obvious violation, I ran a red light right in front of him) was almost apologetic. "So sorry to bother you sir, but it appeared you ignored the red light, is everything OK". I told him I looked down for a moment and just didn't see the light (which was the truth), and, without taking anything from me (license, insurance, etc) he told me to be careful and have a nice day.

    Yes, it benefits me. But it's grossly unfair. I'm sure that if a low-income person pulled the same BS that I did they would be getting a ticket. Yes, I suppose I pay his salary (perhaps directly, given the cost of my taxes) and the low-income guy doesn't. But that's no excuse for this type of behavior. If you want to hand out speeding tickets, put a camera up and ticket everyone (including rich people and cops) who go past the camera at 1MPH.

  • PaulW||

    How many times a day does a cop have to deal with someone who drives a 100k dollar car? Almost never. How are those interactions generally? They probably go well. You make that kind of money because you're intelligent and you know how to get along with people. A cop understands that.

    Now, think about a cop's daily interactions. Generally young people being idiots and poor people on drugs. Their discrimination becomes instinctual over time due to who they actually work with. I tend to not hold it against them. It does suck that there are good poor people who get the crap end of the stick, but you can generally avoid that by being respectful and surprising the cop with you not just being another young punk or idiot low-life. I got pulled over quite a bit when I was in my teens and early 20s, generally deserved it, and generally got out of it about 50/50. Of course I've dealt with cops who were just straight up dicks, such as the guy who searched my car that I spoke of above. But generally they have the same make up as the overall population. Some really nice guys, some really big dicks.

  • trshmnstr||

    Their discrimination becomes instinctual over time due to who they actually work with. I tend to not hold it against them.

    I agree with the first sentence, but not with the second. If a cop can't keep their emotions and biases in check long enough to actually determine whether a person is respectful or a prick, then they shouldn't be given a badge.

  • CZmacure||

    Pretty obviously the Reason commenters (not to mention the writer) haven't actually been in dtla. I work at 5th and Spring. Skid Row is east on 6th. The homeless who don't want to abide by the shelters' rules camp on the streets--in tents, boxes, sleeping bags, whatever. In the morning, they have to pack up because the city needs to clean up the feces, urine, bottles, trash, etc.. So, they walk west to downtown and wander around for the rest of the day, until they can go back to Skid Row. This area isn't Beverly Hills--yes, there's some hipster shops, but there's lot of just little merchants, a Riteaid, and some other stuff as well as renovated loft-style apartments. The homeless hang around, pan-handle, buy and sell drugs, get drunk, piss in the street--jaywalking is the least of the issues. But if the cops write a ticket, the ticketee knows to stop hanging around in that area.

  • PaulinePhelpsmee||

    up to I saw the check of $8495, I did not believe best friend actualy earning money part time from their computer.. there friend brother started doing this 4 only fourteen months and as of now cleared the dept on there appartment and got a top of the range Ariel Atom. website here

  • CLamb||

    Mr. Doherty makes a lot of good points in this article but is wrong about "the little-known regulation that makes it a crime to enter a crosswalk after the red crosswalk light is flashing—even if that red light, as it often does in L.A., is counting down the seconds until the light changes." How could someone in the USA not know that a signal that displays the words "DON'T WALK" in red or an upraised hand in red means not to begin crossing the street? There are frequently even signs fastened to the poles explaining this.

  • jhonmary||

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  • MichalaMatanzagyn||

    my co-worker's aunt makes 67 dollars/hr on the internet. She has been out of a job for 9 months but last month her pay check was 18639 dollars just working on the internet for a few hours. browse this site


  • steedamike||

    Not trying to argue for or against, just relevant:

  • cheap kits||

    If they watch any of us walk or drive long enough they will eventually have a flimsy justification to by-pass the constitution, search our belongings and extract money from us. This is nothing new. Just LAPD thugs thugging like always.


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