Police Have Been Arresting Drivers for Minor Traffic Offenses. A New Texas Bill Seeks to Put a Stop to It

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Image Credit: Eden Prairie Police Blog

The police in Texas have a lot of latitude when it comes to how to handle many traffic offenses. Often, citations and fines are issued for relatively minor offenses and everyone goes on about their day. But that isn't always the case. Sometimes, arrests are made for traffic violations that carry only fines as punishment.

Republican Texas state Senator Konni Burton wants to end that practice.

She recently introduced SB 271, which would change Texas law regarding arrests for Class C misdemeanors that aren't punishable by jail time. The bill would also require officers to disclose that a fine is the only punishment at the time a citation is issued.

Senator Burton told Independent Journal Review that:

“SB 271 prohibits law enforcement from arresting individuals for fine-only offenses, such as a broken tail light or failure to signal. It's in the best interest of our police officers, our jails, and our citizens to end this practice. We want our resources focused on violent and repeat offenders, not on jailing people for offenses punishable only by a fine.”

Earlier this year, the city of Jennings, Missouri, was forced to pay residents who were jailed for unpaid fines a $4.7 million settlement after losing a class action lawsuit. Many of those unpaid fines were due to minor traffic violations and most of the residents jailed were poor and black, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Thomas B. Harvey, an attorney in the case commented, after the settlement was reached:

“There are 90 cities surrounding Jennings and Ferguson. Until all of them change their practices either voluntarily or as the result of legislation or litigation ... this is still going to be a region that overpolices for revenue and criminalizes black life.”

According to a post at Restore Justice USA regarding Burton's bill, a 16-week study of arrests in just one Texas county (Harris) found:

  • 23,578 arrests were made, 11% of those arrests stemming from fine-only offenses, or class C misdemeanors and below
  • Of that 11%, 30% (763 people) were arrested for a single Class C Misdemeanor, mostly one single traffic violation
  • 1,804 arrests were for combinations of multiple fine-only offenses such as driving with an expired registration, failed inspection, or some other traffic offense.

And that was just for a single Texas county, over four months. One can only imagine what those numbers would look like if a nationwide survey was done.

In addition to being financially burdensome to poor communities, arrests for fine-only offenses waste valuable police resources and do nothing to counter the growing animosity against “policing for profit.”