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]
An idea destined to come here as well? “Under the [European Commission] proposals new cars would be fitted with cameras that could read road speed limit signs and automatically apply the brakes when this is exceeded. Patrick McLoughlin, the [British] Transport Secretary, is said to be opposed to the plans, which could also mean existing cars are sent to garages to be fitted with the speed limiters, preventing them from going over 70mph.” [Telegraph]
More: EU denies having such plans (see comments). And in the U.S., federal regulators (NHTSA and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration) have considered speed governors on heavy trucks, drawing objections on safety and other grounds from independent truckers (2007), while the idea of speed limiters on ordinary passenger cars has drawn regulatory interest in both Canada and the U.S., as well as favorable note from such commentators as Matthew Yglesias and Ryan Avent.
With enough enforcement linkage between different branches of government, do we even need a Panopticon? “Beginning this year, [New York] drivers who owe more than $10,000 in state taxes face losing their license until the debt is paid.” Does this mean persons who have fallen behind on taxes won’t be able to get to their jobs to pay off the arrears? Well, it seems “there is a ‘restricted’ license that you can apply for in the event that your license is suspended” which “would allow you to commute to and from work only.” How this is to be enforced — whether the hapless motorist will be nailed for stopping off for a loaf of bread on the way home, or venturing out for a job interview — is your guess as well as mine. [Kelly Phillips Erb, Forbes]
It seems Colorado lawmakers are given special license plates that don’t get speed-camera tickets or parking ticket collections. [CBS Denver] Five years ago the Orange County Register reported that hundreds of thousands of state and local employees, spouses and children in California were covered by programs allowing them to exclude their addresses from the system, supposedly to safeguard them against criminal threat — though a great many of the jobs were exceedingly low-risk — with the incidental benefit that toll and red-light-ticket collectors could not reach them, and many parking tickets were left unenforced as well. “This has happened despite warnings from state officials that the safeguard is no longer needed because updated laws have made all DMV information confidential to the public.”
Given the bossiness of the legislature in Annapolis these days, I had to check the calendar on this one. [Anita Park, Greater Greater Washington, April 1]
P.S. And from The Onion, where every day is April 1: “Mississippi Bans Soft Drinks Smaller Than 20 Ounces.”
Yet more: Didn’t Ilya Shapiro predict this? “Supreme Court upholds same-sex marriage as a tax” [Tax Foundation]