Proposal to increase traffic infraction penalties will harm the poor, people of color

News Release: 
Monday, April 27, 2015

ACLU: Don’t Fund Court Services on Backs of Poor People 

The ACLU of Washington is urging the Washington State Supreme Court to reject a proposal to increase monetary penalties for traffic infractions, saying that doing so will unfairly burden the poor and people of color. In a letter to Supreme Court Justices (attached), the ACLU opposed a proposal by the Judicial Information System Committee to hike assessments for traffic infractions as a means of funding court services, including public defense.

“Increased infraction penalties will have a significant negative impact on poor people. It will worsen the financial burden imposed on the very people who may require court services, including indigent defense,” said ACLU-WA staff attorney Vanessa Hernandez.  “The funding of court services should not land on the backs of the poor.”

Further, the proposal will disproportionately impact people of color in our state. The ACLU cited studies around the state which have shown that police disproportionately stop people of color. The ACLU also pointed to studies finding that once stopped, people of color are more likely to receive a citation.

The base infraction penalties are, at the outset, doubled due to the Public Safety and Education Assessment. If a defendant is unable to pay the penalty immediately, many courts refer the debt to collections agencies; these agencies, in addition to 12% interest, charge collections fees often totaling 50% of the underlying debt.

“A simple traffic ticket can quickly grow beyond the ability of the individual to satisfy the debt. This can lead to suspension of a person’s driver’s license, loss of employment, and involvement in the criminal justice system,” said Hernandez.

In most infraction proceedings, there is no determination of a driver’s ability to pay the fine.

While the court can waive or reduce the penalty for drivers who request a mitigation hearing, most drivers do not appear in court. Given the choice between a day at their job and a day without pay spent at court, most simply assent to the infraction and fine.