Stopped, Fined, Arrested: Racial Bias in Policing and Traffic Courts in California

In California, Black and Latino drivers are more likely to have their licenses suspended or be arrested for driving with a suspended license. This report examines the stark racial and socioeconomic disparities in driver’s license suspensions and arrests related to unpaid traffic fines and fees, the implicit and explicit biases in the policies and practices of the police and courts, and the detrimental impacts of these current policies and practices on California’s residents.

You can read the full text here

Key Findings:

  • Rates of driver’s license suspension based on failure to appear or pay are strongly correlated with mean household income; of the zip codes with suspension rates higher than the average, 92 percent have household income levels lower than the average. 
  • The percentage of Black residents in a zip code is positively correlated with the rate of license suspension due to failure to pay or appear.  95 percent of the zip codes with a percentage of Black residents above 20 percent have a license suspension above the average. 
  • Even though Black drivers are much more likely to be stopped and searched by Berkeley cops, they are no more likely to be arrested, and much less likely to be cited for any kind of infraction.
  • Black and Latino drivers are more likely to have their vehicles towed; in Fresno County, Latino drivers comprise roughly 50 percent of the population, but were issued 89 percent of the citations for driving without a license that resulted in car impoundment.
  • When a person fails to appear or pay, the DMV suspends the person’s driver’s license; there is no process in place to lift the suspension until after the fine has been fully paid. Furthermore, most courts do not have systems in place to evaluate each defendant’s financial circumstances, and  there is no right to counsel in an infraction case.
  • When minority communities experience overexposure to tickets due to allocation of police resources or implicit and explicit biases, they are more vulnerable to driver’s license suspensions for failure to appear or pay. 
  • Driver’s license suspensions shut people out of employment by eliminating their ability to travel to and from work, and limiting access to and eligibility for employment opportunities, nontraditional jobs, and job training programs.
  • Disproportionate discretionary arrests and jail time can have serious financial, practical, and psychological impacts; for communities, disparate policing erodes trust in the police. 
  • The cost of incarceration is expensive, exacerbates jail overcrowding, and puts strains on staff and other corrections personnel.


  • Abolish the use of driver’s license suspension as a court-ordered debt collection tool. 
  • Stop the criminalization of people who cannot afford to pay fines and fees. 
  • Reduce fines, fees, and assessments for low-income people and ensure equal access to justice. 
  • End the over-policing of communities of color and low-income communities. 


Back on the Road California