The Sacramento Bee: California traffic stops, arrests hit minorities harder

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Published in the Sacramento Bee

Black and Latino Californians are disproportionately likely to have their driver’s licenses suspended and face arrest as a result of traffic stops, according to a new report.

In Los Angeles County, for instance, the report found that a third of the people arrested on driving with suspended licenses were black, despite African Americans making up less than a tenth of the population. In San Francisco, where the population is 5.8 percent black, African Americans made up nearly half of all arrests on driving with a suspended license.

The outcomes occur despite “no documented difference in driving behavior,” according to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, which led the report’s authors to conclude the disparities reflect a deeper problem.

“There is growing understanding that some of the inequality in traffic and infraction enforcement can be explained by the operation of implicit and explicit racial bias … these biases clearly play a role in who is stopped,” the report argues.

The fact that “motorists of color in low income racially segregated neighborhoods … are still disproportionately represented in the arrest data,” the report continues, suggests “systemic racial bias in policing and courts.” To reach their findings, report authors melded data from the census, the Department of Motor Vehicles and local police agencies.

While he refrained from drawing any conclusions before reading the report, California Police Chiefs Association President Ken Corney said he did not believe race informed traffic enforcement.

“The members of our profession, in doing their work every day, focus on behaviors, not on ethnicity or gender,” said Corney, who also heads the Ventura Police Department, adding that “any information that can be gained that helps our profession in being viewed as unbiased in our job is worth looking at.”

Racially uneven enforcement of traffic laws has attracted intense scrutiny since a scathing U.S. Justice Department report on Ferguson, Mo., found that police targeted African Americans and were motivated primarily by a “focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs.” The federal government subsequently sued Ferguson.

A 2015 Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area analysis of California traffic courts, titled “Not Just a Ferguson Problem,” found a similar pattern of revenue-driven enforcement that crippled some people with debt. California later that year enacted a traffic fine amnesty program and a law allowing people to contest their tickets before paying fines.

Now the same organization has released a paper depicting what authors called a consistent pattern of minorities being more likely to face fines, suspended licenses and arrests.

After analyzing data from six cities and Fresno County, the authors found that African American and Latino drivers were more likely to be pulled over and searched than white drivers, often without an observable traffic violation occurring.

The effects snowballed from there, according to the study. Black and Latino Californians had their licenses suspended for failing to pay citation fines or not appearing in court at a relatively higher frequency than their white counterparts.

And after losing their licenses, blacks were arrested on driving with suspended licenses at rates eclipsing their share of the population, the report found.

“It’s the closest thing we still have to a debtors’ prison in California,” said Michael Herald of the Western Center on Law & Poverty, who worked on the report. “There’s just this cascading series of events that happen to people that start with really minor traffic offenses.”

Legislators will get a chance to weigh in on the issue this year. Senate Bill 881 by Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Los Angeles, would ban the DMV from suspending licenses of people who fail to pay fines or appear in court as a result of minor traffic offenses. People with licenses already suspended for those reasons could have them reinstated. The bill is opposed by the California Police Chiefs Association.

License suspension rates spike in neighborhoods with higher poverty rates and denser concentrations of black and Latino residents, according to the paper’s analysis of geographic data.

In a part of Carmichael where the poverty rate sat at 11.3 percent and whites made up three-quarters of the population, for example, the suspension rate was 2.5 percent. In a slice of south Sacramento where the majority of residents are black or Latino and the poverty rate is 26 percent, the license suspension rate jumped to 5.4 percent.

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