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Research shows racial disparities in the policing of drivers

From the northeast of Massachusetts to the southwest of California, there is a cynical term used within the African-American community: driving while Black. Some people joke that this in itself is an offense. While this is an exaggeration, the statement is not altogether false.

CNN reported in 2016 that even in the liberal haven of California, wide racial disparities existed in how Black drivers were policed, compared to other racial and ethnic groups. If the driver was poor, then the odds became worse for them. Here are some of the findings CNN provided to back up its claims:

  •          Only 2% of drivers statewide had suspended licenses, but when neighborhoods had Black populations higher than 20% it rose above the state average.
  •          Blacks make up 9% of Los Angeles’ population, but made up 32% of arrests for traffic violations. Meanwhile, Whites accounted for just 12% of these arrests, while making up 27% of the population.
  •          Black drivers were more likely to have their license suspended than other racial and ethnic groups, if they failed to appear in court.
  •          Black drivers were more likely to be arrested than Whites for driving on a suspended license.
  •          Black drivers were more likely than Whites to be stopped by police and have their vehicles searched.

The fees and fines then compounded over time to create a financial rut that many already poor people cannot get out of. Because of this, one civil rights group compared states’ policies regarding fees and fines as a debt collection tool rather than a safety measure.

In Massachusetts, drivers often worry more about the actual suspensions than the fines. According to Mass.gov, the RMV could revoke a driver’s license or learner’s permit if a driver received three speeding tickets in a 12-month period. Payment did not seem to have any effect on this decision. In fact, habitual offenders could lose driving privileges for up to 5 years, even if their offenses occurred out of state.

While this may present a more equitable system than a focus on fines, more research would need to be examined to say this with certainty. After all, the people who end up in the court system, depend on who the police stopped and ticketed. And, as CNN’s findings showed, too often does racial profiling play a role.

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