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.

"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."