A new report released today by the Racial Justice Project at New York Law School found that New Yorkers of color are disproportionately stopped, ticketed, arrested, charged, and convicted for traffic violations and driving on a suspended license. The report presents new evidence of the racial impact of traffic stops, along with the most comprehensive data collected in New York and nationally on racial disparities at each stage of traffic enforcement.
The report comes at a critical time, as state lawmakers are working to ensure passage of the Driver’s License Suspension Reform Act, sponsored by Assemblymember Pamela Hunter of Syracuse and Senator Timothy Kennedy of Buffalo, which would end debt-based driver’s license suspensions. The bill has been endorsed by the Driven by Justice coalition, led by the Fines and Fees Justice Center, the Bronx Defenders, and the National Center for Law and Economic Justice. Six U.S. states, from California to Mississippi, have recently passed similar reforms.
“As millions of New Yorkers have experienced, a traffic ticket can be the start of a devastating chain of events,” said Professor Alvin Bragg, who co-directs NYLS’s Racial Justice Project. “Taking away someone’s license just because they can’t afford a traffic ticket creates conditions that parallel modern-day debtor’s prisons. Low-income people and especially people of color bear the brunt of this broken system.”
Between January 2016 and April 2018, New York issued nearly 1.7 million driver’s license suspensions for not paying traffic tickets or appearing to contest them. As detailed in the report, the driver’s license suspension rate in the 10 New York City ZIP codes with the highest concentrations of people of color is 2.5 times higher than in the ZIP codes with the most concentrated white populations. Outside of New York City, the disparity is even more extreme: Suspension rates in the 10 ZIP codes with the highest concentrations of people of color is 4 times higher than in the 10 ZIP codes with the most concentrated white populations.
Driving is such a necessity that 75 percent of people continue to drive after their license gets suspended—risking criminal charges, more fines and fees, and even jail time. In New York City—where driving on a suspended license was the fourth-most charged crime in 2018—76 percent of drivers are white, yet 80 percent of people arrested for driving on a suspended license in 2018 were Black or Latinx.
Two-thirds of all driver’s license suspensions in New York are issued for not paying or not appearing to contest traffic tickets—not for dangerous driving. White people and people of color violate traffic laws at similar rates, yet Black and Latinx people are more likely to be the subject of traffic enforcement, and thus far more likely to have their license suspended, the report notes. These suspensions increase the number of unlicensed and uninsured drivers on the road, while diverting law enforcement, DMV, and court resources from more pressing public safety problems.
“For low-income New Yorkers, losing your driver’s license can threaten your entire livelihood,” said Melissa Toback ’19, the Lewis Steel Racial Justice Project Fellow at NYLS and author of the report. “This forces people to make an impossible choice: stop driving—and lose access to work and other basic necessities—or keep driving, and risk jail time and more unaffordable fines. At each stage of the justice system, the racial disparities and harms to New Yorkers of color are compounded.”
The report also emphasized that license suspensions are an ineffective debt collection method that decrease GDP and tax revenue, while harming the overall economy. A New Jersey study, cited in the report, found that 42 percent of drivers lost their jobs when their driver’s license was suspended; of those able to secure new employment, 88 percent reported a decrease in pay.
NYLS Dean and President Anthony W. Crowell praised the research efforts. “The New York Law School Racial Justice Project is a formidable team with a steadfast vision,” he said. “Advancing equity and justice for our fellow New Yorkers is a key priority of our new 2020 Strategic Plan, and I’m proud of my colleagues for producing this significant work.”