Per documents released in response to a FOIA request, the federal government maintains a large program using automatic license-plate readers to track vehicles in real time (not just in later investigation) and nationwide (not just near borders). The program “collects data about vehicle movements, including time, direction and location, from high-tech cameras placed strategically on major highways.” The resulting photographs are “sometimes” clear enough to identify drivers or passengers. “One email written in 2010 said the primary purpose of the program was asset forfeiture.” Although the program is run by the Drug Enforcement Administration, its data is increasingly shared for investigations unrelated to drugs. [Wall Street Journal]
Forfeiture-driven law enforcement is at this point deeply embedded in our practice at both federal and local levels, and the small and ambiguous federal-level reforms announced by AG Holder earlier this month are unlikely to turn that around in themselves.
Conor Friedersdorf comments: “The DEA will obviously continue to lose the War on Drugs. We’ve traded our freedom to drive around without being tracked for next to nothing. … Unfortunately, leaders in the U.S. law enforcement community feel that they’re justified in secretly adopting sweeping new methods with huge civil liberties implications.” (cross-posted and expanded at Cato at Liberty). A different view: Jazz Shaw, Hot Air (could be useful in “managing crime,” and think of the children: unless we let government monitor our comings and goings, the throwers of little girls into vans will win). And more: They can watch your car, but as Waze flap confirms, don’t you dare watch theirs [Liz Sheld]
Update: new emails reveal plans of even wider scope, including a proposal (which DEA says was not acted on) to cooperate with BATF to track license plates of gun show attendees. The Guardian quotes me about the chilling effect systematic surveillance can have on the exercise of rights, and about the impetus for cooperation between Right and Left on reining in law enforcement use of data tracking. Note pp. 10, 27-28 of this NRA amicus brief in an ACLU mass-surveillance case. And earlier on license plate tracking here (Los Angeles FOIA), here and here (Maryland), and here (Radley Balko). And with the rapid development of onboard computer technology, our cars ourselves could soon be reporting our driving habits to the government. But that’d never happen, right? [Steven Greenhut] “Taxing Us To Spy On Us” [Chris Edwards]
Nowadays driver’s license suspensions are passed out almost as freely as tickets themselves once were, yet they can often be economically and personally devastating to their targets [NPR via Brian Doherty]:
If you get caught drinking and driving in Wisconsin, and it’s your first offense, you lose your license for nine months. For a hit-and-run, the punishment is suspension for one year.
But if you don’t pay a ticket for a minor driving offense, such as driving with a broken tail light, you can lose your license for two years. …
The most common way that people lose their driver’s license in Wisconsin is not for drunken driving or other unsafe driving. It’s for failure to pay the fine on a ticket for a nonmoving traffic offense. Those make up 56 percent of all license suspensions in the state, according to statistics from the Wisconsin Department of Transportation.
Many of the jobs that enable indigent persons to climb out of poverty call for use of a car, as with cleaning jobs, which typically require driving to the homes or offices being cleaned. Many other jobs are not near bus or mass transit lines, while in other cases the job seeker does not live near such a line. Absent an income from work, there is less hope of paying off the debt to the state. So even if one adopts the cynical view that Wisconsin makes the penalty higher for missing a ticket payment than for a hit-and-run because it is obsessed with maximizing its revenues, it’s not necessarily doing that efficiently either.
More on petty fines and fees here.
Perhaps because it uses police for revenue collection rather than public safety. Last year the tiny town of Beverly Hills issued six traffic tickets and two ordinance violations for each resident. An investigation of the string of towns that includes Ferguson, Mo. finds heavy reliance on speed cameras and intensive traffic enforcement on sometimes-tiny stretches of road, oversized police forces, various anecdotes of assault and misconduct, and, in the case of the town of Edmundson, Mo., a memo from the mayor in April 2014 ordering the writing of more tickets. [Lisa Riordan Seville, NBC News; earlier]
And thinks to blame economic inequality, but not municipal coercion [David Sheff, Time] For a Northern California tow-and-impound saga that makes even San Francisco look mild, see earlier coverage here, here, and here.
As I and many other writers have noted lately, the town of Ferguson like several nearby suburbs in St. Louis County has a reputation for raising revenue through aggressive use of tickets for minor traffic and vehicle infractions, a practice that many suspect weighs more heavily on poorer and outsider groups. Blogger Coyote, who now lives in Arizona, has some reflections about police practice in that state and also adds this recollection from an earlier stint in Missouri:
I worked in the Emerson Electric headquarters for a couple of years, which ironically is located in one corner of Ferguson. One of the unwritten bennies of working there was the in house legal staff. It was important to make a friend there early. In Missouri they had some bizarre law where one could convert a moving violation to a non-moving violation. A fee still has to be paid, but you avoid points on your license that raises insurance costs (and life insurance costs, I found out recently). All of us were constantly hitting up the in-house legal staff to do this magic for us. I am pretty sure most of the residents of Ferguson do not have this same opportunity.
If you last saw it in the small town of Hamlet, N.C., it might have been impounded by the police on low-level charges and then sold for scrap to junkyards in a series of what appear to be irregular and under-monitored transactions. “In police files were two court orders, signed by a state district court judge, but otherwise left mostly blank. Those pre-signed court orders, which judicial experts say are extremely unusual and do not seem appropriate, appear to have been copied and then used to dispose of at least seven vehicles.” [News and Observer last November via Balko]
More from New York City: “TLC Wrongly Accused Hundreds of Being Illegal Cabbies in Past Year.” And when they accuse, they can and do seize your car, which you may have to go to a lot of trouble to get back. [DNAInfo] Related: “City investigators wrongfully accused a black man of being an illegal taxi driver after they spotted him dropping off his wife at work, believing she was a white livery cab passenger, a lawsuit charges.” [DNAInfo via Alkon]
Time mag asked arch-leftwinger Barbara Ehrenreich about the best single way to reduce income inequality. I’d never have dreamed that David Henderson would agree with the answer she gave — or that I would too. More here on Ehrenreich’s views on the “criminalization of poverty” (which, not surprisingly, head off in directions very different from mine once you’re past the initial area of agreement).
One reader points out that laws against behaviors like driving with broken headlights or lapsed insurance are of universal benefit and improve road safety. But I don’t think Ehrenreich’s point (or Henderson’s or mine) amounts to “let’s legalize driving with broken headlights.” Not so long ago, many petty offenses of traffic and street life were illegal but the consequences of violation were much less harsh. The other day I got a transponder toll in the mail amounting to maybe $10, which would jump to $150+ if I didn’t get in a payment within 20 days; being your basic organized middle-class person, I dashed off a check that same day. Add one complicating factor — say I was a person whose mail was forwarded to me from another address — and it would have been a closer thing.
Why has government chosen to escalate once-petty fines over the past couple of generations? 1) It wants revenue and likes the idea of making agencies self-financing or better; 2) it listens more closely to its own agencies than to the populace; 3) when middle class policymakers (as they nearly always are) consider the issue, they think of what level of fine it would take to deter someone like themselves and worry less about whether fines at that level might capsize the little guy or small business (I hear often about how this framework of punitive small fines is a key deterrent to trying to run a small business with a couple of delivery trucks and maybe an urban commercial building or two to run up inspection and property fines.)
The reformist consumer finance literature, to which Elizabeth Warren was a big contributor as an academic, and with which Ehrenreich is no doubt well acquainted, decries $30 late fees and 20 percent interest rates as a business plan by which credit card companies can turn small debts into big ones at the expense of persons without middle-class money habits and skills. Which raises the question: why spend so much time belaboring the banks if government’s own policy on late fees, bounced checks, etc. is going to be so much less merciful? (& welcome Radley Balko readers)
P.S. An example? South Carolina man says he didn’t realize you needed to pay for a soda refill at VA hospital canteen. Contemplated consequences: $525 fine, federal criminal conviction, unable to return to workplace. (Update: following national publicity, let off with warning).
“A Baton Rouge-area defense attorney known for criticizing the use of sobriety checkpoints was handcuffed and taken to jail early Wednesday after exiting the passenger side of his vehicle while intoxicated and informing his driver of her right to refuse a sobriety test, police said.” His attorney says Jarrett Ambeau, charged with obstructing an officer, “really was just trying to protect his client.” [Baton Rouge Advocate]
Speed traps paved the way to corruption in tiny Hampton, Fla., critics say [CNN] More: Lowering the Bar.
“An Oklahoma state senator has filed a bill to allow law enforcement officers to issue electronic citations for traffic, misdemeanor and municipal ordinance violations.” Sen. Al McAffrey, himself a former police officer, says approaching motorists’ cars is one of the more dangerous parts of patrol officers’ job. So why not let them just skip it, even if that also means skipping the opportunity for motorists to be notified of their legal jeopardy at once, see their accusers, have a chance to explain themselves, and so forth? “If they don’t have to approach vehicles during traffic stops to give people tickets but can simply email traffic violation citations directly to the district court clerk then they’re less likely to get into a dangerous altercation, the lawmaker said.” McAffrey’s S.B. 1872 would also attach a new $5 processing fee to the tickets, of which a portion would be shared with the ticketing officer’s department. [Insurance Journal, KOCO](& welcome Above the Law, Scott Greenfield readers)
Even if the cops wave you to the side amid flashing lights, and functionaries come out to ask you for saliva or blood samples, and keep asking after you say no, it’s all “voluntary.” Right? Right. “A recent Georgia appellate decision reversed a trial court that held the lights atop a police car were merely an invitation to chat rather than a command to stop, the refusal of which tended to produce death by a hail of gunfire.” [Amy Alkon, Scott Greenfield, earlier here, here, and, on "no-refusal" blood-draw DUI checkpoints, here]
An extra reason to be cautious in your holiday driving:
If you live in one of 30 cities, you may find yourself pulled over soon at roadblocks where police and federal contractors ask to swab your cheeks, take your blood or give a breath sample to see if you’re on drugs without any probable cause that you’ve committed a crime. Such an exciting time for your civil liberties!
[Jalopnik via @ProfBainbridge] On the separate issue of “no-refusal” blood draws at DUI stops in states like Texas and Tennessee, see Sept. 30.
Long Island: “The head of Suffolk’s new Traffic & Parking Violations Agency on Thursday defended the controversial policy of charging an administrative fee even on tickets that are dismissed.” [Newsday]
Yanking drivers’ and professional licenses from dads who fall behind on their payments? David Henderson on a widespread government policy that makes little sense as a way of maximizing the payment rate for court-ordered obligations, somewhat more sense if seen as a vehicle for sentimental vengefulness. [EconLog]
“Shannon Renee McNeal was torn from her screaming children by police who were seeking a woman with a similar name — a woman who they should have known had been murdered seven months before.” [St. Louis Post-Dispatch via Radley Balko]
More of the week’s awful-police-happenings coverage: Atlantic City beating and canine attack [Tim Lynch, Cato]; Ames, Ia. police shoot and kill son after dad calls to report he’s taken truck without permission [Des Moines Register]; “Man Dies In Jail Cell After Misdemeanor Pot Offense” [Snohomish County, Wash., severe allergies; Radley Balko again]; New Mexico man’s lawsuit alleges “worst traffic stop ever” [Jalopnik, Popehat, Lowering the Bar and more, Orin Kerr, Michelle Meyer/Faculty Lounge]