The High Cost of Driving While Poor 

Alameda County traps people in poverty with steep fines for minor traffic infractions — in a cruel system that depends on punishing Black and low-income residents and is plagued by hypocrisy and conflicts of interest.

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In the East Bay, several factors amplify these inequities. In Oakland, data has repeatedly shown that police stop Black residents at disproportionate rates, meaning people of color are more likely to get traffic citations and thus wind up in a court system that preys on low-income residents.

What's more, in Alameda County, one of two judges who rules on all these cases in Oakland is particularly harsh in both his punishments and his treatment of low-income defendants, according to an Express review of court recordings and transcripts, along with a formal complaint recently filed against the judge by an East Bay attorney. The judge, Commissioner Taylor Culver, regularly mocks and quarrels with defendants in a way that critics say is inappropriate for a commissioner and intimidates the most vulnerable people in his courtroom.

Civil rights activists say the combination of these oppressive forces makes traffic court one of the cruelest legal systems in the East Bay — one that routinely ruins the lives of people who have done nothing wrong.

And for defendants unlucky enough to find themselves in front of Commissioner Culver, they're also faced with a judge who has no sympathy for their stories or their plight — even though he, himself, has struggled with many of the same types of financial and legal problems stemming from his repeated failure to pay government fines, penalties, and debt.

The inequality of traffic court begins on the streets of Black and poor neighborhoods in the East Bay. In Oakland, Black drivers are significantly more likely to be stopped by police than any other racial group. Recently released Oakland Police Department data showed that, between April 2013 and October 2014, out of roughly 30,000 stops for alleged traffic violations, 53.2 percent were of Black residents — despite the fact that Blacks make up only 27 percent of the city's population. Meanwhile, white residents, who make up 26 percent of Oakland's population, accounted for just 14.9 percent of traffic stops.

Experts agree that this kind of alarming disparity is not a reflection of the inferior driving skills of Black residents, but is rather the result of racially biased policing. For example, the OPD data showed that out of 3,479 stops in which cops cited "reasonable suspicion" — a vague legal standard that allows officers to pull over motorists with little justification — 73.1 percent of those stopped were Black, while only 7.7 percent were white. Latino residents were also stopped at higher rates than white residents, but less frequently than Black motorists, the OPD data showed.

Beyond the potential racial biases of individual officers, police departments tend to spend more time patrolling low-income and Black neighborhoods, which increases the likelihood of people in those areas being stopped. And because poor drivers and people of color have more of these interactions with the police, they are more likely to get caught for relatively minor administrative offenses — such as lacking proof of insurance. Low-income drivers are also more likely to have older vehicles with maintenance problems that can justify a police stop and lead to a costly citation.

Across the board, data shows that many traffic violations involve relatively inconsequential errors that pose little to no threat to public safety. It could be a broken headlight, an obstructed windshield, failing to display a carrier identification number, or an incorrectly worn seatbelt. Often, "It's a ticket for driving while poor," said Anna Kirsch, staff attorney with East Bay Community Law Center, which co-authored a damning report on traffic court released last month called "Not Just a Ferguson Problem: How Traffic Courts Drive Inequality in California."

According to data that Alameda County Superior Court provided to the Express, out of 286,895 total traffic court violations in the county in 2014, the most common offenses were red-light violations (12.4 percent); speeding above 65 miles per hour (9.5 percent); lacking proof of registration (8.5 percent) or proof of insurance (6.6 percent); driving without a license (5.5 percent); and improperly using a cellphone while driving (5.3 percent).

But the data also shows that thousands of people were cited for seemingly insignificant violations, such as failure to notify the DMV of an address change within ten days (2,604 people); unlawful material on the windows (3,507); missing a license plate lamp (907); and using an audible sound system outside of a vehicle (306).

Traffic court is also the venue in which judges review a wide range of infractions that have nothing to do with driving, and that, advocates argue, primarily impact low-income people, minorities, and the homeless. Last year, in Alameda County, 4.7 percent of the total citations heard in traffic court were for non-traffic offenses, including failing to pay public transit fare (2,449 violations); drinking in public (1,789); jaywalking (397); smoking in a no-smoking area (354); disturbing the peace (85); and biking on the sidewalk (84). "The homeless get harassed disproportionately for smoking cigarettes, having open containers, and doing the things we do in our homes that they cannot," said Mari Castaldi, program coordinator with the East Bay Community Law Center's General Legal Clinic, which assists homeless clients with traffic citations.

Inequities also continue and intensify inside the courtroom. Fines that pose an inconvenience for middle-income or wealthy residents can create a life-altering burden for low-wage workers, the unemployed, welfare recipients, or others facing personal hardships. This has long been the case, but the barriers in traffic court have grown in recent years as state lawmakers have continued to dramatically raise the costs associated with citations.


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