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“In the world of misdemeanor crimes, many offenses come about because people are impulsive, drug-addicted, cruel or avaricious,” Nordlie says. “Most DWLS cases don't happen for any of those reasons. DWLS cases come about because people are poor. Or, at the very least, because they don't manage their money well…DWLS is more strongly linked to economics than any other misdemeanor offense.” It frequently occurred because of unpaid tickets, or lack of insurance.
“I had many clients tell me, ‘I had to keep working to have a chance to raise the money I needed to fix this situation, and in order to work, I had to drive.’ Bam. It's a DWLS charge waiting to happen.”
Nordlie knows “there are situations where someone needs to stop driving, due to demonstrated incompetence or disregard for other peoples' safety, But in my experience, those situations represent only a small fraction of DWLS cases.”
UCLA’s Donald Shoup, wizard of parking (whose controversial policy proposal is to hugely raise the price of parking) has written on the idea of graduated parking fines, in recognition of the fact that, in his survey of Los Angeles one year, 8 percent of ticketed cars generated 29 percent of tickets.
Shoup isn’t moved by the idea that parking or other violations might disproportionately harm the poor. Lots of people just think “I got a ticket and I’m aggrieved so I’ll say they hurt the poor more,” Shoup says. “It’s like pushing poor people in front of themselves like human shields.” Nevertheless, the graduated fine idea could be used to give a break to the working poor or destitute and could also be applied to moving violations to keep people from losing jobs or ending up in jail over what are ultimately no, or pretty low, harm crimes.
For those who fear traffic mayhem absent strict enforcement of moving violation fines, a study by Shoup, published in a 1973 issue of Journal of Transport Economics and Policy, is tantalizing. He found that in a controlled experiment in Los Angeles in 1968, having motorcycle traffic cops merely observe from a visible place and take no action produced only a one percent rise in injury accidents over a control period. Switching the cop to a policy of approaching violators but merely warning them led to a 13 percent decrease in injury accidents. Perhaps rugged fine-based enforcement isn’t necessary for a civilized and safe roadway.
Macro data on the specific effect of parking and traffic fines and laws on the poor don’t seem to exist. Blasi, the UCLA law professor who studied the effects of jaywalking enforcement in L.A., says “it’s almost impossible to get any kind of data on pure citations, it’s not part of national crime reporting.”
Gathering data or dreaming up policy fixes for to stop the pettiest end of state law enforcement from ruining the lives of the poor isn’t a high priority for academics or even most activists, Blasi says. “Except those representing people on the street, like L.A. Community Action Network, I don’t think anyone pays any attention... [to] policing that seems minor," he explains. "It’s minor to someone like you or me, but to other folks not at all minor.”