Readers Comment on "Driving While Poor"   (October 23, 2009)

The rapacious exploitation of those caught "driving while poor" drew these comments.

Readers responded to Criminalizing Poverty For Profit: Local Government's New Debtors Prisons (October 20, 2009) with insightful experiences and comments. First, correspondent Jeff Ray, who submitted the original story, sent in this data point:

Cost of speeding 20 mph over post without a license in Tennessee? $827.00 and a free lunch at lock up if you canít make bail.

Note from the Peanut Gallery (CHS): Is this fine posted on every speed limit sign, or is it kept a little secret until you get busted? If so, then what disincentive is it? And who came up with $827? Why not $897.23, or $19,783.11? If you're flat broke, $827 and $19,000 are more or less equivalent.

Next up: correspondent A.R. illuminates the fine art of small town speed traps with an example or two from the state of Washington:

Having spent several weeks with friends in the South Puget Sound area and heard numerous stories about rapacious law enforcement agencies in Washington, I was actually relieved to see that the article in the Atlantic Monthly about the new debtor's prison was reported from Seattle. I was certainly outraged and scared to learn that motorists were being treated so aggressively over minor traffic violations in order to replenish state coffers, but I was relieved because it was happening in a state long notorious for rapacious traffic enforcement.

When I was staying in the South Sound, I was told that two municipal police departments in the area were notorious for existing as little more than highway robbery outfits. One was in the city of Roy, a glorified village east of Fort Lewis, and the other was in the city of Steilacoom. Although by some accounts Roy had a more rapacious police force than Steilacoom, my friends and I were much more familiar with Steilacoom because we visited it frequently and because it was hard not to run into people who had been cited by the Steilacoom Police Department.

Steilacoom is a beautiful, charming city perched on a hillside leading down to a ferry dock on the Sound. It was Washington's first territorial capital and is the oldest incorporated city in the state. However, there is no justification for its continued existence as a political entity at its present size. It is too small to expect any efficiencies from a paid police force or from any other paid municipal agency. In a state heavily reliant on sales taxes, Steilacoom has a very small retail base, even relative to its population, so its tax base is constrained.

Common sense about administrative costs or internal discipline would dictate the disbanding of the Steilacoom Police Department in favor of a larger agency with some economies of scale and credible internal affairs protocols. Merging its municipal force with Dupont's would be a start; better yet would be a merger with the Lakewood or Tacoma Police Departments or ceding patrol responsibilities to the Pierce County Sheriff's Office. Steilacoom is not a high-crime area in need of its own dedicated force.

This is especially true because currently the Steilacoom Police Department exists not to keep Steilacoom safe, but to collect revenue from hapless motorists. A friend who was ticketed there said that Steilacoom Traffic Court is a zoo, dedicated less to due process than to expediting the processing of defendants for revenue collection, one whose judges are glad to summarily plead down citations and fine amounts in order to proceed to the next victim. He said that the waiting room was full of defendants.

Bear in mind that this was in a city the size of a large village, off the main state highways, with fairly light traffic on its main streets! But it's not so hard to reel in a full catch when unusually low speed limits are zealously enforced in safe areas and the cops have nothing better to do with their time. The same friend who described the traffic court met a man who was ticketed in Steilacoom for driving too SLOWLY in a 25 mph zone!

This friend posited that the city of Steilacoom and its police force will be left intact out of a sense of historical duty and reverence because no one will dare mess with the first territorial capital of Washington. Such a line of thinking, which many officials in the area probably believe in earnest, is stupid and disastrous. It's stupid because no one need lay a hand on the city's historical buildings, markers and archives in order to disband its current police force pursuant to RICO; based on what I've heard, the Steilacoom Police Department is as worthy as any organization for prosecution as a racket or a corrupt organization.

It's disastrous because sworn police officers and judges are being directed to violate and pervert their oaths of office by engaging in activity tantamount to highway robbery, and because a municipality is potentially being given extra latitude to operate as a criminal racket with the force of law because it is the heir to a venerable political history.

Obviously, the debtor's prison described in the Atlantic Monthly article is a lot worse than anything I've heard of from Steilacoom, but they're both part of an ongoing and apparently worsening problem that Washington's elected officials and voters are not doing enough to resolve. Police officers and judges entrusted with the enforcement of traffic laws are taking highway robbery in the name of public safety to extremes. If Washington state's voters and elected officials are too apathetic or greedy to force reforms, perhaps officials answerable to the other Washington should be engaged. From what I've read about recent federal consent decrees and receiverships governing local police agencies, they're better for the public than the alternative of inaction, and the Steilacoom Police Department may well be corrupt enough to be placed under one.

I'm sure that many people will worry about interference by cumbersome federal officials, and they have valid points, but this is far from the only case where local and state authorities are unwilling to stop making a dangerous mockery of law enforcement. I'm not familiar enough with case law to say for sure, and I hope that there are viable local or state options, but federal intervention may be the only way to compel meaningful reform.

Note from the Peanut Gallery (CHS): So how is this any different from countries like Mexico where underpaid (or unpaid) police extort money via bogus traffic fines and trumped up charges? I see no difference whatsoever, lending more credence to the current Web meme that the U.S. is in essence a banana republic/Third World country riddled with corruption and fraud from the highest levels to the lowest depths of local bureacracy.

Everyone seems to fear the Federal government, mostly with good reason, but as someone who had run-ins with the F.B.I. for nonviolent political "crimes" in the 70s ( i.e. resisting illegal wars that would have revolted the Founding Fathers), I would rather have a Federal court and authority to deal with than a rogue local police department. At least the F.B.I. won't drag you from your car, beat the crap out of you and then charge you with assaulting a police officer.

(As noted below, the Federal agency approach is to hire thugs to do the dirty work.)

I have many sworn officers in my circle of family and friends, and while most officers and PDs are doing their very best in a troubled time with wilding meth freaks and heavily armed drug gangs, rogue PDs get away with a lot because they're protected by the ideal of giving police departments some slack and the "closing of the ranks."

At some point, you need a higher authority to clean out the rogue PDs because the local Powers That Be are incestuous.

That said, the F.B.I. itself went rogue in the 1960s and 70s, completely trampling the Constitutional rights of the citizens via COINTELPRO, the FBI's secret campaign to infiltrate, undermine, marginalize and/or subvert the antiwar movement. (Regardless of whether you supported the war or its supposed goals, the war was illegal from the get-go. And remember what Washington said about "foreign entanglements"?)

These programs employed illegal entry ("black bag jobs") and surveillance, extralegal force and violence (creating and funding extremist front groups to commit the violence at arms distance from the Federal government), and psychological warfare ("dirty tricks," harassment, misinformation, setting up pseudo-movements run by government agents, threaten activists' parents landlords, employers, etc.) The 1976 Church Committee formed to investigate the domestic intelligence campaigns concluded:

"Many of the techniques used would be intolerable in a democratic society even if all of the targets had been involved in violent activity, but COINTELPRO went far beyond that... the Bureau conducted a sophisticated vigilante operation aimed squarely at preventing the exercise of First Amendment rights of speech and association."

Anyone who doesn't believe their government is capable of Police State repression and subversion of First Amendment rights should research COINTELPRO more fully. While you might have disagreed with the groups subverted in 1969, the line between "those radicals" in 1969 and "us tax protesters" in 2009 is thin to vanishing.

Nothing will be more threatening to the State and status quo than tax resistance/rebellion and former insiders (those whose belief in the system has faded) turning into whistleblowers. (End comment from the peanut gallery.)

Correspondent Bruce S. offered a completely different perspective on the entry, noting the car-centric nature of the fines.

I've been familiar with your blog for a couple years. I usually approve of what you say. However, I disagree vehemently with your most recent entry. Of course local government is doing everything it can to increase revenue, by hook or by crook, and will not contemplate reducing payouts, for the reasons you describe. Old news, seen it coming for years.

The thing I OBJECT to is the particular items you chose: everything was associated with automobiles. and seemed to operate on the base assumption that it is every American's god-given right to own and operate an automobile. I think you're missing the forest for the trees here: the very nature of the change sweeping north america, driven as it is by greed, corruption, and falling net energy extraction from fossil fuels, will eliminate the ability of poor people, and then middle class people, to use automobiles.

I am well aware that this country is entirely auto centric. Specifically, we spend our energy resources in this way (approximately):

40% - transportation, which means semi trucks and personal automobiles
40% - everything industrial, corporate, and government
20% - food production and distribution

Now, the evidence is VERY clear that, unless the USA is able to militarily maintain its hegemony, which seems very unlikely, the energy resources available to the USA will decline at a substantial rate each year: perhaps 5% to 15% per year, starting pretty much immediately, depending more on politics and the outcome of brush wars than on Geophysics. When you look at the numbers and figure out WHAT HAS TO GIVE, and IN WHAT ORDER, it becomes VERY clear that the easiest place to trim our energy use is to cut it from (automotive) transportation. One need not be a rocket scientist to conclude that the FIRST group that will lose access to automobile ownership is the poor and homeless, followed by the (vanishing) middle class. This is inevitable.

So, your I found your rant about how local governments are overcharging for driving-related issues to be somewhat disingenius. of COURSE poor people are losing the ability to drive: not only is this inevitable, but it's actually FOR THE BEST. The sooner people experience the pain of having to use non-automotive transport, the sooner they will get angry and demand change. Some people might even start to recognize the foolishness and futility of trying to maintain a 'happy motoring' economic system in a time of declining fossil fuel production.

So, please quit whining about barriers to owning and operating a car for poor people. The sooner they STOP TRYING to operate a car and figure out other ways to do things, the better off they, and all the rest of us, will be. Our auto-centric transport system is clearly GOING TO FAIL - please don't try propping it up, instead encourage it to fail more swiftly, so we can move on to whatever comes next.

Note from the Peanut Gallery (CHS): Bruce's missive made me realize that I'd done a poor job of staking out my objections to the rapacious "driving while poor" fines, and so I emailed him this response:

While I understand your primary point about the problems created by a car-centric economy, I realize I should have been more clear about my main objection to the car-centric fees.

1. These do not relate to the metrics used to levy other taxes such as consumption and income
2. They are arbitrary I.e. unrelated to anything but the greed of local govt
3. They bypass the democratic process by which local govt. should approach the voters/taxpayers with proposals which raise taxes, I.e. taxation with representation.

Having recently visited L.A., I can certainly agree that everyone would be better off without a car, poor and middle-class alike. I happen to live in the S.F. Bay Area where doing without a car is actually do-able due to the subway/bus/trolley system. However the poor person in LA has a much more difficult time without a car.

Is this the policy makers fault or the poor person's? Clearly, it is the policy makers fault. Therefore we have to direct our energies to modify the car-centric urban landscape at the planners and policy makers.

Thank you for writing and contesting my rant. A good solid debate and sharing of ideas is always helpful.

Thank you, Jeff, A.R. and Bruce, for your comments. Given the declining tax revenues at the local level, I expect the issues raised here to only grow in importance and impact. It seems obvious that the exploitation of those caught "driving while poor" is unconscionable and a corrosive example of abuse by local government powers.

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