Illustration By: Najee Person
You just woke up and you realize that you’re about to be late for school or work. So you hop in the car and speed a little bit, because you can’t afford to be late. You then merge onto highway I-70, and the next thing you know you’re getting pulled over. In the best case scenario, you will receive a warning. But most likely, you’ll get a ticket.
For many, that ticket is just the beginning of a journey through government buildings, courts and potentially, jail. Particularly for teenagers, one traffic stop can be a lot of money and time stuck in a municipal court system that may haunt you for the rest of your life. Tragically, it can also mean a more serious consequences-- as was the case this past week when a man was hospitalized after being denied medical treatment while in jail for traffic fines in Pine Lawn, MO, a small municipality near North County. With so many tickets and traffic stops occurring in your neighborhood, it’s important to know why these are happening and how you can best handle the situation if you do get pulled over.
Who Gets Ticketed
In North County municipalities such as Ferguson, residents believe that police often profile minorities when it comes to traffic tickets and other offenses. They call it being a victim of driving while black (DWB). It’s no surprise that the locals would feel that way after the fatal shooting of 18 year old, Michael Brown, by a Ferguson Police Officer. In a town of 21,000, which two-thirds of the residents are African-American, their police force consists of 53 officers, only 3 of whom are African American. But before the Michael Brown incident, the Ferguson and those just passing through, have to live in constant fear that officers will hassle them for little to no reason at all. A recent St. Louis Post-Dispatch survey of the 31 St. Louis County municipalities where blacks made up 10 percent or more of the population found just one town where black representation on the police force was equal or greater than the black presence in the town itself. This creates a great disconnection between the residents of a town and the police force, particularly in municipalities with a high occurrence of police/community interactions, through traffic stops and more.
Why Police Ticket For Revenue
Many small municipalities in North County, like Ferguson, Bellefontaine Neighbors, Berkeley, and St. Ann, rely heavily on money made from things like traffic stops and court fees. Especially in these municipalities that have suffered declining home values and foreclosures that typically help finance the city, towns become dependent on money that tickets and violations provide as a source of revenue. “Some of the towns in St. Louis County can derive 40 percent or more of their annual revenue from the petty fines and fees collected by their municipal courts.” One study showed that in 2013, the municipal courts of St. Louis City and County collected $61,152,087 in fines and fees, which comprised 46% of the fines and fees collected in Missouri, with only 22% of the population. This means ever-increasing pressure on city officials and police to write tickets, make arrests for outstanding warrants and enforce a court system and laws that jail residents for minor offences and traffic violations.
Illustration By: Najee Person
Often in towns that have a large low-income population, a traffic ticket results in a court date where your balance for the ticket is due. For many who have received tickets or court dates, particularly low income individuals, often have to choose between paying their fine or paying their electricity bill.
Some of the towns in St. Louis County can derive 40% or more of their annual revenue from the petty fines and fees collected by their municipal courts.
If you do not have the money to pay the ticket and decide to not go or cannot make your court date because of work or other responsibilities, fines and other fees are added to the charge, and often, a warrant is issued. So the next time you get pulled over, that past due speeding ticket now means jail time, where a cash bail is set without any other option for your release. This may all happen before your court date. This may also happen in multiple towns, resulting in a far higher chance that you will be arrested for an outstanding warrant or traffic ticket.
How Police Write Tickets for Profit
Often, municipalities will set specific quotas for tickets or arrests they want to see in a given month in order to make the money they need . For example, a police department may tell their force that they must get a specific number of traffic tickets issued. That means each officer must obtain a certain number of tickets issued or face punishment from their supervisors. Many claim that this police into revenue collectors instead of community protectors, relying on punishing residents to make money for the city.
To meet these quotas, as you can see in the video below, police from many municipalities hover around a certain area where they know people commonly speed to meet these quotas. “Each municipality has a tiny stretch of land, so you’ll go from one municipality to, half a mile in, another municipality. The idea is to catch people speeding as they’re late for a flight [or work],” said defense attorney Javad Khazaeli. Police pull cars over, taking advantage of the dilemma that the resident is in at the time, give a ticket for various reasons and go on their way.
For example, Ms. Quinn, a Baden resident we interviewed, was on her way to Bridgeton going to work early one morning. She was a bit late, so she decided to go 5 miles over the speed limit. She knew highway I-70 was full of police waiting for the opportunity to pull someone over, but she needed to get to work on time. Before Ms. Quinn could get a mile into the highway, she slowed down but she was still pulled over. The officer asked for her license and registration, which she had, and told her she was speeding on the highway. The officer didn’t want to know anything about Quinn's situation, or why she was “breaking the law.” She was given a ticket and was even later to work.
On top of that, these municipalities have historically been able to charge those who are arrested for the cost of their time in jail, almost like a hotel stay. The potential financial burden is two-fold for many residents who are pulled over or have a warrant for their arrest-- appear and pay the ticket and court fees or jail time and court fees.
How to try and Avoid these Cycles
Being late for school or work isn’t as bad as being absent for school and work because you’re in jail for traffic tickets or other fines. Be mindful of the way police officers in certain areas work and drive the speed limit. Always be aware of your surroundings and where you are. If you are pulled over, the slides below can provide advice on how to best handle the situation.