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Debtors’ Prisons: When Your Traffic Ticket Can Put You in Jail

Debtors’ prisons come from a dark time in history. In the 18th and 19th century, people who were unable to pay their debts were locked in prison until the prisoner worked off the debt or someone outside paid their debts.

The idea of imprisoning a person because they could not pay a debt came under intense criticism. So it is hard to believe that debtors’ prisons have re-emerged in our modern society. But they have returned, and the debts are now owed to the government. A speeding ticket or a parking ticket can ruin anyone’s day. You may need to pay to attend traffic school, pay the fine, and your insurance premium will go up.

What happens if you can’t pay for a fine that rapidly grows in cost? The answer seems to be simple: do not get a traffic ticket. But is there more to this problem than being a law-abiding citizen? And what do traffic tickets have to do with debtors’ prisons?

How Does a $35 Traffic Ticket Turns Into a $298 Traffic Ticket?

On California’s DMV website, they admit that a traffic ticket with a “$35 base fine may actually cost you $146.” All tickets in California have a surcharge of 20%. If you have a ticket worth $40, you have an added charge of $8. But if you have a ticket worth $500, then you have a surcharge of $100, resulting in a fine of $600. In the end, a speeding ticket with a base charge of $35 may end up being $298 due to additional charges.

If you “ignore” your ticket, or are unable to pay for it, the fine can double. If you continue to ignore your ticket, your license can be suspended. A failure to address your ticket can result in a warrant for your arrest. Speeding Ticket

This is what happened to Qumotria Kennedy and so many others, who were unable to pay the growing fine of $1,001. That fine came from one ticket that happened two years ago. But as a single mother of two working part-time, she could not afford to pay off the growing fine.

One day, her friend’s car was pulled over and Ms. Kennedy was a passenger. The police officer ran a search on Ms. Kennedy and found she had an outstanding warrant. She was jailed for five nights and eventually released. As a result, she lost her job and now lives in fear that another arrest warrant will be issued.

Ms. Kennedy’s situation is not unique. There are many people who are dealing with the never-ending cycle of mounting fines. They are arrested, held in jail, and then have to pay for bail, legal fees, and the still growing fine. It is easy to see how so many people cannot afford to stay out of jail.

“Driving Safely” May Not Fix the Problem

Law enforcement outlawed traffic ticket quotas and insisted that they do not exist. Every so often though, another article writes about another police station upholding a quota. Combined with the reality of racial profiling, it may be that people of color that drive older vehicles will be pulled over more often.

Opponents will argue that cities and counties rely on municipal fines like traffic tickets to keep their lights on. If the police department is not issuing as many tickets, then their city or county may suffer. Often the police are encouraged or ordered to issue a certain number of tickets a month. It isn’t easy for them to catch every speeding driver. But it is easy to pull over an older car on the chance they do not have insurance, expired tags, broken tail lights, or any other moving violation.

For example, in California if you move and do not change your address with the DMV within 10 days, you face a $214 fine. A damaged muffler can cost $178. Failure to provide evidence of car insurance can give you a $718 fine. It can be reduced with proof of insurance at a later time, but the fine is not eliminated, just reduced.

The System is Broken, And We Are Paying the Price

However, cities and counties should not rely on traffic tickets to keep their budget afloat. The use of a ticket quota is banned for a reason. The government cannot continue to profit off individuals who must pay an increasing fine for their freedom. The fact that a $35 fine can increase into a $298 fine due to “surcharges” is excessive by almost any standard.

Yet, even if the driver has proof that they did not break the law, they would need to go into court to contest it. Often the driver will need to miss an entire day of work to make the court appearance.

Paying off an unexpected fine may not be possible for a large part of our society. Recent studies show that 41% of Americans have less than $500 saved in their account. Around 23% of Americans have less than $100 available to spend in an emergency.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that a growing part of our country cannot pay off their traffic tickets. It is a system that is broken and digs individuals deeper and deeper into debt.

Janice Lim


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