By Roxanna Jarvis and Julia Asby
CALIFORNIA – A Sept. 2020 report published by the Lawyers’ Committee of Civil Rights (LCCR) reveals that Black, Latinx, and people experiencing homelessness are disproportionately charged for non-traffic violations in California, most notably ordinary human behavior such as sleeping, sitting, and standing in public spaces.
The report came after the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and still applies as the number of Black people killed by law enforcement keeps rising. The most recent known death was of 20-year-old Daunte Wright, who was shot after allegedly being stopped for having air fresheners on his rearview mirror.
The report notes that enforcement of minor infractions has led to police violence and claims that Black and Latinx communities are disproportionately harassed, leading to trauma that white communities commonly do not face.
While criminal filings in California overall have been decreasing, non-traffic infractions are increasing as a sum of criminal filings have increased over the years—and reports show that racial disparities are widespread within these enforcement stops.
After researching the 15 largest law enforcement agencies in CA using data from the Racial and Identity Profiling Act (RIPA), the authors of the report found that among people who were issued a citation from non-traffic stops, “Black adults were up to 9.7 times more likely to receive citations than white adults in the same jurisdiction.”
The results also displayed that Latinx adults were up to 5.8 times more likely to receive infractions during these stops than white adults within the same jurisdiction.
An important finding was that the most frequently given non-traffic infraction citation across jurisdiction, making up 37 percent of all data collected, was related to “a person’s mere existence in a public space: for sleeping, sitting, or loitering (standing).”
To the authors, the issue is that non-traffic citations exist—they argue that these infractions are primarily for individuals exhibiting harmless behavior and are disproportionately targeted to harm Black, Latinx, and unhoused people.
Additionally, they state, these laws were created partially to gain revenue from infraction fines, yet California currently has $10 billion dollars in uncollected infraction debt.
Authors found that a $100 base fine, with the addition of unrelated fees from the court, increases to a total of almost $490 due per citation. This, combined with the fact that low-income and unhoused Californians are mostly targeted, creates a system where debt rises and people unable to pay or fail to appear in court are given warrants for arrest and face the possibility of being charged with a misdemeanor(s).
In their recommendation, the authors say that the enforcement of non-traffic infractions should be eliminated wherever possible.
Within the report, the authors examine Public Records Act data they retrieved from a number of city Police Departments for all non-traffic infraction citations from 2017 – 2019. Their findings show clear proof that infraction enforcement is disproportionately geared toward Black individuals.
Here are some, but not all, of the city police departments researched:
It was found that Black adults were 3.8 times more likely than white adults to be issued non-traffic infractions. Although they make only seven percent of the population, Black adults make up 30 percent of such infractions by LAPD.
The statistics, already high, do not include data from the Administrative Citation Enforcement (ACE) program, which “targets unhoused, Black, and Latinx Angelenos for punishment for existence in public spaces.”
Long Beach had similar statistics, in that Black adults comprised 36 percent of non-traffic violations, while only making up 11 percent of the population. Black adults in Long Beach were three times more likely than white adults to be issued infractions.
Two zip codes, 90802 and 90813, accounted for 50 percent of all the infractions by the Long Beach Police Department during the two years. These zip codes are located downtown, where a predominantly Latinx neighborhood is located, as well as social service providers.
The data displayed that for every 1,000 white adults, 9.5 were given a citation for a non-traffic stop by San Francisco Police Department; for every 1,000 Latinx adults, it was 9.8; and for every 1,000 Black adults, 42.6 received a citation.
Black and Latinx adults were found to be two times more likely to be cited infractions than white adults; Black adults made up nine percent of the population, but were issued 17 percent of all infraction citations; Latinx adults made up 31 percent of the population, but were issued 61 percent of all infraction citations.
During the two years, every single person cited with an infraction for “1st Offense – Possession of Marijuana” was a person of color.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is quoted describing the inception of these policies: “[F]ollowing the civil war, southern states enacted Black Codes to subjugate newly freed slaves and maintain the prewar racial hierarchy. Among these laws’ provisions were draconian fines for violating broad proscriptions on ‘vagrancy’ and other dubious offenses.”
The result of these practices has led to ongoing trauma, unresolvable warrants and unpayable debt for more than a century.
According to the report, most of the people who are given citations for non-violent offenses related to homelessness are unable to pay them, which further perpetuates their unhoused status. The consequences of not being able to pay the fines for non-traffic infractions can lead to warrants and arrest.
It also shows that non-traffic offenses and other fines can exacerbate the racial wealth gap. The report found that “the fines and fees of non-traffic infractions disproportionately impact Black and Latinx families, not just because they are targets of infraction enforcement, but because Black and Latinx families have much less wealth on average than white families.”
These interactions with police, it claimed, can even bring about physiological responses such as accelerated heart and respiratory rates that can bring about anxiety and trauma as a result.
It also asserts that the large fines and infractions associated with non-traffic infraction enforcement in California do little to solve actual issues facing communities. Instead of issuing fines, the authors suggest that the money could be invested in creating affordable housing.
The report offers various concurrent solutions that could end non-traffic infraction enforcement in California: “[A] state bill could prohibit enforcement of non-traffic infractions, city councils could repeal non-traffic infraction laws, and in cities where municipal infraction laws were passed on the ballot, cities could issue moratorium on enforcement.”
The authors additionally suggest that police budgets be reduced and have that money be reallocated and “tailored to local needs and accordingly redirected to housing, or education around dog ownership, or preventing whatever harms the laws were originally intended to redress.”
They went on to argue that non-traffic infraction enforcement punishes acts not worthy of chastisement and achieves no important purpose. It instead perpetuates racial disparity.
“At a time when it is not only crucial, but possible to reimagine policing, California should end enforcement of these laws,” concluded the authors.
Roxanna Jarvis is a fourth-year student at UC Berkeley, currently majoring in Political Science with a minor in Public Policy. She is from Sacramento, California.
Julia Asby is a third year student at UC Davis majoring in Political Science with a minor in Sociocultural Anthropology. She is originally from Sacramento.
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