"These practices are rampant across the country, most recently in Louisiana," Lauren-Brooke Eisen, a senior counsel with the Justice Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, said. "Fees and fines emerged as a powerful funding mechanism when state legislatures balked at raising revenue."The article included this excellent quote from anti-tax maven Grover Norquist offering a cops-as-tax-collectors meme:
An increasing number of states and localities look to close budget gaps through fees and fines accessed through the criminal justice system. The scenario has created a cottage industry of for-profit probation companies like JCS, which oversee payment plans and collect fines and fees on behalf of municipalities.
In 2010, the ACLU found "this troubling trend in five states, and since then an additional three to four states," Choudhury said. "In 2015 alone, the ACLU and its affiliates filed lawsuits in Georgia, Mississippi, Washington and Michigan," she said. "This is a problem that truly spans the country."
"Since the Great Recession we've seen a dramatic rise. What we've seen is hard-pressed state and local governments increasingly relying on fine and fee collection to fill budget gaps," Choudhury said. "There's a conflict of interest when government is collecting money it depends on but is also charged with enforcing fair and impersonal criminal justice. So, courts should not be revenue generators and neither should the police."
The issue has fostered an alliance between civil rights groups and conservative activist Grover Norquist, with the president of Americans for Tax Reform speaking at the same December panel as Lynch.In Texas, the latest manifestation of this practice came in the annual "Great Texas Warrant Roundup" earlier this month, which is timed to tap debtors around the time they may be getting a tax refund. From the ACLU of Texas:
"When I was a kid," Norquist said, "my parents always said if you have trouble, go to the policeman, he's your friend. I've never heard it said about IRS agents. Yet we've turned at the local level a lot of the police force into tax collectors."
The State’s unreasonable traffic ticket scheme and the devastation it can wreak on low-income Texans receive considerably less attention.
Depending on the jurisdiction, a ticket for failing to signal a lane change—the pretext for Sandra Bland’s tragic traffic stop—will cost you around $66. But the State tacks on $103 in court costs and a host of fees, some bordering on Kafkaesque. Texas will charge you a public defender fee, even though courts refuse to appoint a public defender for traffic ticket cases. If your fine is already too expensive to afford, Texas charges a fee to put you on a payment plan. You’ll even pay an “administrative fee” for the privilege of handing money over to the court. For people who are too poor to pay their tickets, that $66 fine can grow to over $500.
If you can’t afford to keep up with these fees, the State will suspend renewal of your driver’s license (add another $30 for the License Renewal Suspension Fee), and you’ll be unable to register your car, making it illegal for you to drive to the job you need to take care of your kids and pay off your spiraling debt. An expired registration means you’re certain to be pulled over and put back at square one, with new tickets, new fines, new fees, and no hope.
Case in point: Valerie Gonzales, one of the original plaintiffs represented by the Texas Fair Defense Project in a class action lawsuit against the City of Austin. Valerie is a 31-year-old mother of five children with disabilities. She and her family live in poverty. After receiving two traffic tickets nine years ago, not only had Valerie’s tickets multiplied and her fines ballooned into the thousands of dollars, she lost a job after she was unconstitutionally jailed without the benefit of a court-appointed attorney.
When people like Valerie are arrested in the coming warrant roundup, judges across Texas will follow their usual plan of demanding a payment in exchange for liberty. Without asking questions about financial circumstances, judges literally order people to turn over all the money they happen to be holding when they are arrested. “Give me what’s in your pockets” is not a phrase that should be uttered in a courtroom. What’s worse, when the working poor don’t have enough money to hand over, judges send them to jail without a fair hearing or a second thought.