Traffic Tickets As a Regressive Tax That Targets Poor Minorities

If you haven’t heard by now, the fine city of Ferguson, MO generates one quarter of its tax revenue from traffic tickets. Here’s one awful thing–well-to-do people can buy their way out (boldface mine):

Because Missouri works on a point system and a certain number of points suspends or revokes your driver’s license, it is crucial to amend a moving violation to a non-moving violation. If you have the money this works. For a simple speeding ticket, an attorney is paid $50-$100, the municipality is paid $150-$200 in fines and court costs, and the defendant avoids points on his or her license as well as a possible increase in insurance costs. For simple cases, neither the attorney nor the defendant must appear in court.

However, if you do not have the ability to hire an attorney or pay fines, you do not get the benefit of the amendment, you are assessed points, your license risks suspension and you still owe the municipality money you cannot afford. While many courts expect payment in full, courts frequently allow payment plans sometimes as low as $50 per month. If you cannot pay the amount in full, you must appear in court on that night to explain why. If you miss court, a warrant will likely be issued for your arrest.

People who are arrested on a warrant for failure to appear in court to pay the fines frequently sit in jail for an extended period. None of the municipalities has court on a daily basis and some courts meet only once per month. If you are arrested on a warrant in one of these jurisdictions and are unable to pay the bond, you may spend as much as three weeks in jail waiting to see a judge….

Despite their poverty, defendants are frequently ordered to pay fines that are frequently triple their monthly income.

What’s even more disgusting is that the Ferguson court only meets every three weeks and if you are five minutes late to the start of the session, the doors are locked and you can’t attend. To top that off, relatives of defendants aren’t allowed in the courtroom, which means defendants have to make child care arrangements–which they might not be able to afford.

Meanwhile, not only can the middle class buy their way out of trouble, but the poor risk being jailed, which can lead to unemployment and homelessness.

Did I mention that African-Americans are far more likely to be stopped for traffic infractions?

All right. We are two nations.

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3 Responses to Traffic Tickets As a Regressive Tax That Targets Poor Minorities

  1. Bayesian Bouffant, FCD says:

    Meanwhile, in Finland: Nokia boss gets record speeding fine

    Monday, 14 January, 2002, 14:29 GMT
    In Finland, traffic fines are proportionate to the latest available data on an offender’s income.

  2. TheBrummell says:

    ” the poor risk being jailed ”

    Wait, so there are debtor’s prisons in the USA now? I thought those were specifically outlawed.

    • Basic answer: yes.

      NPR covered this issue in some detail this spring ( ).

      Put this together with the paramilitary tendencies that have been evident in Ferguson, and a very ugly picture of the criminal justice system in the U.S. emerges. Reversing some of the most draconian drug sentencing laws represents progress on the path toward bringing actual justice to the justice system, but there’s a long way to go, and things are likely to get sticky when reforms cost states and local municipalities money, as opposed to saving it (as the changes in sentencing laws generally do). One could, of course, argue that a populace with stable jobs that pay a living wage is likely to make up the difference in taxes (and that the “criminal justice” practices described above tend to destabilize the working lives of the working poor in multiple ways), but that argument may be hard to make to officials now apparently well-accustomed to balancing their budgets with fine/fee revenue (and equipping their police forces with military surplus).

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