Polk County, Fla., Sheriff Grady Judd is getting some heat for the tweet below, posted Wednesday morning. And rightly so.
If you go to a shelter for #Irma and you have a warrant, we’ll gladly escort you to the safe and secure shelter called the Polk County Jail
Most of the criticism of Sheriff Judd’s tweet has rightly focused on its implications. If residents of Polk County heed Judd’s warning and stay away from shelters, and if Hurricane Irma hits Polk County with all the force and fury that’s expected, it seems likely that some of those people will be injured or killed. It’s an incredibly irresponsible thing to have posted publicly, and it’s indicative of a sheriff who’s more interested in being punitive than in public safety.
But I want to dig a little deeper into this, and look at who it is that Sheriff Judd’s tweet is targeting. For most people, I suspect the phrase “outstanding warrant” conjures up an image of someone accused of domestic abuse, an escaped felon or someone who jumped bail after an arrest for a serious offense. But the vast majority of people living under outstanding warrants got to that position because of one or a series of traffic citations, followed by an escalation of fines and fees stemming from an inability to pay.
The common refrain from people defending the sheriff on social media was some version of “If you can’t handle the punishment, don’t break law.” This was also a common response to the post-Ferguson reports (including here at The Watch) on the way fines and fees have been devastating low-income people in St. Louis County, Mo., and to similar reports about oppressive fines and fees in other places across the country.
In fact, it’s a common enough response that I think it deserves a detailed deconstruction. So here are a few things to keep in mind when we talk about people who have outstanding warrants stemming from low-level offenses.
— Poor people are disproportionately targeted, disproportionately unable to pay, and therefore disproportionately subject to additional fines, penalties, warrants, arrests and jail time
Just last month, local news station WTSP aired a report on Florida residents who ended up serving jail time over minor traffic offenses. One resident ended up behind bars because she couldn’t afford a $262 ticket for a broken taillight. The report inspired two state senators to introduce legislation to ease the fines and penalties, but it seems unlikely to pass. “They’ve proposed similar legislation before,” the station reported, “but the support wasn’t there because Florida counties depend on traffic fine revenue.”
Indeed, a 2015 investigation by the Miami Herald found countless similar stories of poor people jailed for inability to pay traffic fines. Incredibly, the paper found that 29 percent of drivers in Miami-Dade County had suspended licenses, and 77 percent of those suspensions were due to in inability to pay fees, fines or child support. Failure to pay a single ticket on time can lead to added penalties and fees, including fees to collection agencies. Failure to pay those fees lead to a license suspension, an arrest warrant and jail time. And in Florida, a third offense of driving with a suspended license will result in a felony charge. The investigation inspired another bill in the state legislature last year. It died in committee.
I focus on Florida, because that’s where Sheriff Judd happens to be. But it’s a similar story all over the country. According to a lawsuit filed in Virginia just last year, “A person convicted of reckless driving in Virginia risks no more than a six-month suspension of their license, while a person who fails to pay court costs faces an indefinite suspension, often lasting years. In [fiscal] 2015 alone, the DMV issued 366,773 orders of driver’s license suspensions resulting from unpaid court costs or fines, more than a third of which (38%) were for offenses unrelated to driving.”
Michigan also suspends driver’s licenses for an inability to pay fines and fees. The Daily Beast reported in May that driving with a suspended license results in an additional 30-day suspension and a $1,000 fine. Even once those fines are paid, there’s $125 reinstatement fee, plus another $45 fee to the secretary of state.
For people of means, a $200 or $300 traffic fine may sting, but it isn’t debilitating. For low-income people, it can be crushing. The Daily Beast article tells the story of a woman in Michigan who makes $726 month, but is facing more than $2,000 in traffic fines. The fines and suspended license have prevented her from taking a higher-paying job because it’s farther away and would require her to drive.
Like an addict, once cities and states get hooked on revenue from fines, they start to crave more. The Virginia lawsuit noted above points out that in 1989, the average court costs in the state for a traffic offense were $20. Today, it’s more than $100, plus added fees for a blood draw, jail admission and “even reimbursement of fees paid to attorneys appointed by the state to represent people who are too poor to afford one.”
I wrote a few years ago about getting a speeding ticket in Kentucky. The fine itself was $62. But with the added court costs and assessments, it was over $250. If I hadn’t been able to provide proof of insurance, it would have topped $500. Back in 2012, the San Diego Union-Tribune explained why, because of fees and added costs, a $35 speeding ticket in that city now costs $235. It’s only gotten worse since then. According to a lawsuit filed in California last year, “because of the increase in surcharges and fees associated with traffic tickets in California, a $100 violation now actually costs nearly $500. If a person misses an initial payment deadline, the cost of the ticket increases to $800 or more.” Because of the added fees, one woman who is part of the lawsuit received a $712 ticket for failing to wear her seat belt. The fine for running a red light is still $100, but with the surcharges and fees, it’s really $549. A 2016 study by the Western Center on Law and Poverty found that as of 2014, more than 600,000 Californians had their driver’s licenses suspended, most for the inability to pay fines on other offenses.
This year, Washington, D.C., increased the fine for speeding in a 25-mph zone from $300 to $500. The original proposal was $1,000. The city doubled fines for other infractions. Last year, officials in Nassau County, N.Y., proposed an additional $100 fine on all traffic offenses. In LaGrange County, Ind., most traffic offenses are $35 . . . plus a $135 fee. Several years ago, Massachusetts lawmakers crafted an especially devious policy: To challenge a traffic fine in court, you had to pay a fee that exceeded the cost of most tickets — win or lose. In 2015, I wrote about how Biloxi, Miss., was contracting probation and collection related to traffic infractions to a private company — which then charged the already-struggling people a fee for the “service.” You get the idea. This sort of thing is happening everywhere.
And we haven’t even talked about the effect all those infractions have on insurance premiums. Things have gotten so bad that the Justice Department issued a warning last year about the dangers of becoming dependent on revenue from fines and fees.
In addition to the fact these fines make up a much larger portion of a poor person’s income, wealthier people are also more likely to be able to afford a lawyer to get the charges dropped or reduced, or to prevent them from showing up on a driving record. Despite the fact that these citations can eventually result in an arrest warrant and jail time, so long as they’re misdemeanors, there’s no requirement that states or municipalities provide the indigent with a public defender.
Perhaps more importantly, in most places, you can send a lawyer to fight a ticket without having to show up yourself. For a low-income person who works in the service industry, or who has kids, that can be a huge thing. When I sat in on a municipal court session in Florissant, Mo., a few years ago, it heard the cases in which someone had sent a lawyer first, meaning that poorer people not only didn’t get a lawyer to help them fight the charges, they had to wait while everyone who could afford a lawyer went ahead of them.
Now, combine the fact that poor people and people from marginalized communities are more likely to be unable to afford these tickets with the fact that they’re more likely to be cited for these infractions in the first place. (This post is already too long, so I’m not going to go in to detail here. Either you believe that minorities are disproportionately stopped and fined, or you don’t. But the data and evidence are out there.)
You start to see how “obey the law” misses the point.