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Highway Robbery and the Poor Tax

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By Gwen McKinney

Imagine being on a Los Angeles highway, minding your own business and just trying to get where you need to go in the unending trials of life. You hit a bump in the road. You confront a barrier. But at least you can keep moving. And then, a bandit emerges from a hidden lookout post and says, “Stick ‘um up—your money or your life.”

A modern-day California stage coach heist or basic highway robbery?

More than being in the wrong place at the wrong time, the major crime for folks subjected to this interruption is being poor. The second offense is having the audacity to need a vehicle to get around. Spurred by “moving violations” and a range of carefully laid traffic traps, fines and penalties, the pursuit is more costly than you can imagine. What starts as an exorbitant sum for an incomprehensible infraction—often captured by checkpoints and police monitors—doubles and triples if not paid by the required date. The question from the victims is not What did I do wrong? but Can I afford to pay the fines and put gas in my car to get to work or pay my rent or put food on the table?

The gory details are in the report Not Just a Ferguson Problem: How Traffic Courts Drive Inequality in California, which gives evidence about the racket engineered by the police, Department of Motor Vehicles and the courts that collectively impose a draconian poverty tax. The results can amount to tens of thousands of dollars in fines, or even land the accused in a debtor’s jail cell.

The report estimated that more than 4 million Californians have suspended driver’s licenses, making it more difficult to keep jobs, maintain adequate credit ratings and move out of the dead-end trap of poverty.

The California report was inspired by a Department of Justice study in the aftermath of the slaying of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, that documented a systemic raid on the mostly Black community using revenue-enhancing traffic fines, penalties and excessive fees. The study revealed that the Ferguson Police Department, as agents of the municipal court’s collections program, targeted mostly Black citizens for minor offenses that were subject to fines, warrants and even jail penalties. As if it’s not enough to exact police violence and abuse, the plot thickens with gross economic assaults.

“In 2013 alone,” according to the DOJ report, “the court issued over 9,000 warrants on cases stemming in large part from minor violations such as parking infractions, traffic tickets, or housing code violations. Jail time would be considered far too harsh a penalty for the great majority of these code violations, yet Ferguson’s municipal court routinely issues warrants for people to be arrested and incarcerated for failing to pay related fines and fees.”

Back to California. A $100 traffic fine can escalate to $800, including penalties, court costs and other fees. Get a few of these and you’re in hock for thousands.

Consider the incredible case of Shulora Gonzales, 25, who was just released from five nights in the LA County Jail for outstanding violations and penalties totaling $120,000. That is not a typo! In normal circumstances, Gonzales would surely have been out of a job and in the hopeless spiral of the state’s feudal criminal justice system.

In this rare instance, her case was negotiated by her employer, Susan Burton, founder and executive director of A New Way of Life (ANWOL). The reentry program provides wraparound services for formerly incarcerated women in the LA area, and Gonzales is a loyal receptionist at the South LA office.

Burton sent in a team of attorneys who were able to untangle a web of systemic judicial abuse, aided by the evidence in the Not Just a Ferguson Problem report. As a result of aggressive litigation by ANWOL advocates, the vast majority of minor offenses were dismissed. Gonzales could go home and back to work.

When contacted about the case, Burton offered this: “These traps are laid for poor people. Those with resources would never find themselves in such a mess. It just goes to show how a hopeful, hard-working woman’s life can be turned upside down.”

It also illustrates what can happen when advocates, backed by information and action, intervene.


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