Most all Americans were tuned into their televisions to watch as the Ferguson, Missouri case unfolded. The Department of Justice issued a disturbing report on the Ferguson Police Department, which not only revealed racism, but clearly showed that racism was used to take money from the group least able to afford it—the poorest residents. In fact, shocking as it may be, what goes on in Ferguson is not particularly uncommon across the United States. Many municipalities across America sustain themselves from money received targeting and trapping lower-income citizens in a stream of never-ending fines.
Violation Fees Turn into a Never-Ending Cycle
John Oliver, host of Last Week Tonight, recently revealed how fees from minor violations often lead to vicious cycles of debt, destroying the lives of citizens. Some of the common municipal violations concern speeding, trespassing, and even failing to vaccinate pets—including ferrets. While many residents of a community may find a ticket for an infraction nothing more than a minor annoyance, for others that ticket could be devastating. Oliver had a Ferguson, Missouri woman, Harriet Cleveland, on his show. Cleveland is one of the many African-American residents who are routinely targeted by Ferguson law enforcement. Cleveland received several minor traffic violations, which she could not immediately pay. Those violations then began accruing penalty fees, becoming a bigger and bigger debt Cleveland was unable to pay. One day as Cleveland was feeding her grandson, Ferguson police officers arrived at her door and arrested her.
How Expensive are the Original Tickets?
The traffic tickets themselves are extremely expensive; a person making minimum wage would have to work at least 35 hours simply to pay one speeding ticket. That’s hardly the end, however. That speeding ticket comes with a myriad of surcharges which raise the base fine significantly. Consider that in California the actual fine for running a stop sign is a relatively affordable $35. The state then adds ten—yes ten—different surcharges and fees on top of the $35, making the total amount due for running a stop sign a whopping $238. But wait—municipal governments are not total monsters. They understand not every citizen could pay $238 for running a stop sign immediately, so they kindly offer payment plans – that come with a fee.
In New Orleans, it costs a citizen $100 to even sign up for the easy payment plan. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. Consider that almost 90 percent of the states currently charge people to be on probation. These outrageous fees charged to the most underprivileged citizens fund local services, allowing the municipality to avoid raising taxes. The Department of Justice report from Ferguson reported the city was doing just that, as well as other things which will likely shock and anger you such as:
· Competitions were held between police officers to see who could write the most tickets;
· One woman in Ferguson received two parking tickets in 2007; Despite the fact that she has paid more than $500 on the parking tickets to date, she still appears to owe another $500;
· Eight towns surrounding Ferguson were found to rely on fines and fees paid by citizens for 30-66 percent of their total revenues;
· Promotions for Ferguson police officers were sometimes dependent on citation revenues, and
· In once particular incident, a police commander was overheard boasting to superiors about the line of people waiting to pay traffic ticket fines.
Further Reading: 10 Things You Need to Know if You Are Falsely Accused
Significant Revenues Received from Resident Fines and Fees
Obviously if half of your municipal revenues are dependent on fines assessed to residents, you are going to be cheering them on to break the law. Some states add insult to injury by suspending the driver’s licenses of those who cannot pay their fines. If you weren’t outraged enough by now, this should do it: In Orange, Florida, an event has even been created around the practice of taking the driver’s licenses of those who cannot pay their fines. A police officer dresses up as the Grinch, and dumps a bag full of licenses out onto the ground. Orange defends its event, saying those who drive recklessly and impact the lives of others deserve to have their own lives impacted. Many of those licenses were not suspended for reckless driving, however; in 2012, 88 percent of the driver’s licenses suspended in Florida were the result of a failure to comply with court summons or fines.
As most adults are well aware, the loss of a driver’s license can tremendously—and negatively—impact your life. We are a driving nation. We drive our kids to school, we drive to work, we drive to the grocery story, church, the mall, the movies, to a restaurant, and to hundreds of other destinations. In New Jersey, 64 percent of those who had their license suspended subsequently lost their job, then they really had no money to pay those mounting fines. As if losing your license weren’t bad enough, owing fines and fees for a minor violation can even land you behind bars.
Jailed for Stealing a $2 Can of Beer
Consider the story of veteran Tom Barret who stole a $2 can of beer. Barret was turned over to Sentinel Offender Services who outfitted him with an ankle monitor—and charged him $360 per month for the privilege of wearing the monitor. Obviously if Barrett could not afford a $2 can of beer, he could not afford the $360 per month. When he was unable to pay the monthly fee he was jailed. And back to Harriet Cleveland in Ferguson. She was unable to pay her fines, the city suspended her license, she had to keep driving in order to get to work, she was caught again without her license, received another ticket, had her fines turned over to a probation company, lost her car and even had her utility services turned off because all of her money was going to the probation company. Eventually, Cleveland ended up in jail. A life destroyed due to minor traffic violations.
Contact Our Boulder Criminal Defense Lawyers
If you or someone you love has been arrested and charged with a crime in Boulder, Denver, or anywhere in the State of Colorado, we can help. Contact the Boulder criminal defense lawyers at Steven Louth Law Offices today for a free consultation and review of your case. Call us at (303) 422-2297 to start building a solid defense against these serious criminal charges.