COMMENTARY: Not Just a Ferguson Problem, But a California Reality

Original article from Benito Link

By Luis Burguillo

The Lawyers Committee of San Francisco recently issued a report on “How Traffic Courts Drive Inequality in California” and addresses more than a concern recently raised about the city of Ferguson-style of revenue generation right here in Hollister.
There is a particular, systematic pattern and practice of abuse in California, by turning routine traffic stops into a very dangerous encounter to one’s life, especially if they happen to be a person of color. Such encounters between communities of color and police, in the endless search for revenue for state and city coffers have ended up in police winning the home front killing war.
The report focuses on California, where many of the Ferguson practices are “chillingly” present, according to the report. The pattern and practice of issuing simple traffic citations for revenue generation, result in a windfall for California and its municipalities, like Hollister, while causing grave financial, seemingly never-ending costs to its residents.
This egregious and repressive system incorporates add-on fees for minor offenses – where the original fine will double or quadruple. In a glaring case of obvious legal abuse and revenue generation intent, the report cites an example of a $25 ticket issued to a mother for missing a 10-day legal deadline to notify the Department of Motor Vehicles on an address change. As a result, her license was suspended. Needing the license in order to work, she lost her job. Due to late fees, surcharges, and penalties a straightforward $25 ticket converted into an astounding $2,900 fine – a disturbing fact flying in the face of basic fairness and due process. Instead, California municipal courts routinely deny the right unless one can make full payment upfront – go figure the logic in that.
What is more distasteful, California law requires its courts to consider the ability to pay when assessing traffic fines and fees. More troubling and serving as a conflict, is the inducement that much of the money collected “goes to fund the courts, so the revenue incentive are at odds with the requirement to consider a person’s financial circumstance.”
As a result of these illegal court practices, the Lawyers Committee reports that over 4 million Californians, approximately 17 percent, have suspended licenses for failing to appear or pay the fine – all the while the money clock remains ticking. California’s court-ordered debt is over $10 billion.
This intentional national and Californian municipal pattern and practice makes it very difficult for people to obtain and keep a job, leaving little choice, in some cases, but to turn to public assistance. Considering the micro- and macro-economic effects, one can only ask what were they thinking? Other than a sick plan to bar, hold back and keep from advancing the poor, elderly and minority – in our case, vast numbers of Latinos – with these official legal bullying practices. It’s amazing how perverse public policy aligned with the sanction of the law turn law-abiding residents into criminals.
The report further documents that official state and city – practices as having the effect of forcing people into “long cycles of poverty that are difficult, if not impossible to overcome,” according to the LCSF report.
Rather than issuing citations for public safety purposes, the practices have resulted in the ill-advised choices parents are confronted with and must make. Does a responsible parent pay a questionable pubic safety citation, over the duty and ability to drive a sick child to the doctor for medical treatment, for a job and contribute to the economy or for food? Our priorities are completely distorted and twisted.
As in Ferguson, these policies disproportionately impact people of color in California. In San Diego and Sacramento, the report data shows that:

  • African-Americans were two to four times more likely to get pulled over for a traffic stop than white people,
  • Hispanic people were also disproportionately stopped and searched,
  • In San Francisco, where African Americans make up 6 percent of the city’s population, they make up 70 percent of individuals in search of legal assistance for drivers license suspensions.

The use of an insidious debt collection apparatus, supposedly and cynically to preserve the “public’s safety” means that California residents – who by the way have been driving well all along, now may not be considered legal to drive because they can’t afford the indefensible revenue generating scheme instituted by our so-called forward-thinking “leaders.” This completely “thought through” policy or pattern and practice, as in Ferguson, diverts police officer time and attention from real public safety priorities. More importantly, the public’s trust in the police, government and courts continue their irreversible free fall.
“Sometimes we make the wrong choices, to get to the right place” – From the movie “Equalizer”