How Petty Traffic Fines Ruin Lives in Milwaukee (and Everywhere in America)


This Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel article is a few weeks old, but just came to my attention. It is a valuable look at how petty law enforcement and a police/court culture of ticket revenue above all can severely mess up the lives of America's less-well-off.

/ Foter / CC BY-NC-SA

The story by Vivian Wang, like the best of city-identified newspapers, is close-focused on Milwaukee:

Driver's license suspensions have become one of Milwaukee's most widely used debt collection mechanisms for unpaid traffic fines, with municipal court issuing almost 48,000 suspensions for that reason in 2014 alone. The city accounted for more than 20% of Wisconsin's 200,000 failure-to-pay license suspensions last year, even though the entire county — the city and its suburbs — accounts for just 13% of the state's drivers, according to Department of Transportation records.

It starts with the story of a mother of five children, two under age 7, April Williams, who was hit with two tickets while in a grocery store parking lot, for broken taillight and driving without insurance.

Not paying those led to a license suspension she was unaware of since she was homeless and mail didn't reliably reach her. That then led to a ticket for that, as well as for expired plates.

An interesting look at how the city prioritizes its concerns, with its ability to get revenue from citizens prioritized above legitimate public safety concerns. Williams' two-year suspension for not paying tickets was:

 twice the amount of time for a driver who injures someone in a hit-and-run. And unlike hit-and-run drivers, people who don't pay aren't eligible for an occupational license that would let them drive to work or school.

The story points out that of course a lot of the fines are simply never paid and might even be officially written off, after causing severe damage to the ability to move about and get work of those with their licenses suspended, if they try to obey the law.

It also observes that if you are on the ball enough to get to court, there are potential mercies built into the system for those who can convince a judge they can't pay the fines all up front, and make 30 percent deposits plus payment plans.

And the ability to legally drive is pretty damn important:

2007 study by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Employment and Training Institute followed a group of mothers for several months after they stopped receiving public assistance. Women who had not graduated from high school but did have a valid driver's license were more likely to be employed than women who had graduated from high school but did not have a license.

"These populations already have a number of barriers" to finding employment, said institute director John Pawasarat. "Put in a driver's license and it clearly made all the difference in the world."

But Milwaukee's municipal court judges have resisted efforts to reduce the frequency and length of license suspensions. In a 2013 email to Gramling, after he requested a more lenient suspension policy, court administrator Himle replied that any change in practice would not hold violators accountable for their unpaid fines.

"First and foremost, the judges stand by the fact that driving is a privilege and not a right," Himle wrote.

The racial angle:

In 2011, African-Americans received 69% of failure-to-pay suspensions in Milwaukee County despite making up only 19% of the county's licensed drivers, according to Pawasarat's research at UWM. Department of Transportation officials said they do not keep records by city.

In 2012, Pawasarat and fellow researcher Lois Quinn mapped license suspensions in the city by reason of conviction. People whose licenses were taken away for drunken driving were evenly distributed throughout Milwaukee. But failure-to-pay suspensions were densely packed into the city's six poorest ZIP codes, which contain overwhelmingly African-American populations….

And the absurd, essentially endless and subjective, range of reasons cops have for pulling you over can disparately impact people along racial lines:

Nichole Yunk Todd, director of policy and research for Wisconsin Community Services, added that she often sees African-American drivers who are ticketed only for offenses that aren't visible from outside the vehicle. That raises the question of why they were pulled over in the first place, Todd said.

Devron Hampton still doesn't know why he was pulled over in November while driving home from his shift at Buffalo Wild Wings. His ticket doesn't shed much light: He was cited only for operating while suspended, not for the way he was driving. Hampton had been suspended the year before because he didn't have money to pay off a ticket for expired plates. He couldn't pay this new ticket either.

The story has other anecdotes of black Milwaukans being pulled over for no obvious reason.

And losing driving "privileges" isn't all that can happen from the piling on of petty tickets. Remember, we don't have debtors prison in the U.S. of Archie any longer; unless that debt is to the government.

State law allows municipal judges to do more than just suspend a driver's license for unpaid fines. They can also issue a warrant for the defendant's arrest. The next time he's pulled over, he could be taken to the county jail.

Each night in jail counts as $50 toward the unpaid fine. The driver stays until the debt is paid.

From 2008 to 2013, 22,739 people  or nearly 4,000 people per year  spent time in jail for failing to pay a fine and then not appearing in Milwaukee Municipal Court, according to a study by Pawasarat and another researcher. Twenty percent of the fines were traffic-related.

Well, the government needs that fine money, right? It's not just about hitting people while they are down or the grossest sort of petty control freakism. It's about cold, hard, cash, helping keep the government going for all the wonderful things it does. Right? Check this out:

That group owed a collective $5.7 million in fines.

The total cost of detaining them, at $103 a night?

$10.2 million.

Read the whole very well-reported and very depressing story.

For some context on the public menace of people like April Williams, Let me quote from former Florida assistant public defender (and old college pal of mine) Tom Nordlie about people driving with suspended licenses, from an earlier article by me on "Petty Law Enforcement vs. the Poor."

"In the world of misdemeanor crimes, many offenses come about because people are impulsive, drug-addicted, cruel or avaricious," Nordlie says. "Most DWLS [driving with license suspended] 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."