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Nearly every criminologist says it. The police traffic stop is the most common way people come into contact with cops. In 2018, the Albuquerque Police Department (APD) made 44,132 traffic stops, an increase of 35 percent over the previous year. Nationwide, police make nearly 20,000,000 police stops each year. According to the authors of Pulled Over: How Police Stops Define Race and Citizenship, “Nationally, 12 percent of drivers are stopped per year by the police. Among racial minorities the rate is considerably higher: 24 percent by some estimates.” The Bureau of Justice Statistics notes that Black and Hispanic drivers are overrepresented among people stopped by police.
We examined the first 1,000 non-criminal traffic cases (e.g., infractions related to insurance, registration, licensing, moving violations, improper/faulty equipment) filed in the Bernalillo County, New Mexico Metropolitan court in 2020 by the Albuquerque Police Department in order to examine patterns in police traffic enforcement and the relationship between traffic enforcement and court warrants.
We found that APD’s 1,000 traffic stops resulted not only in 1,967 contested citations, but also produced 186 bench warrants for arrest. When the court issues a bench warrant for arrest, usually the result of a missed court date, it also levies an additional $100 fee in addition to the fine for the original citation. A bench warrant also triggers an automatic driver’s license suspension. This imposes even more costs because the department of motor vehicles charges a $30 fee to reinstate a suspended license.
Are there patterns in APD’s traffic enforcement? While the reports by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and dozens of other studies, identify the traffic stop as the most common way people come into contact with police, our analysis of APD traffic citation and Metropolitan Court warrant data demonstrates that the APD traffic stop is also one way people come into contact with the jail guards at the metropolitan detention center. Traffic stops, particularly those that include certain kinds of infractions, always result in the threat of arrest, suspension of driving privileges, additional and escalating fines and fees, and for those unable to pay all of this, particularly for certain infractions, incarceration in Albuquerque’s Metropolitan Detention Center.
From Speeding to Work to Sitting in Jail?
Why would the traffic stop, easily the most common, routine, everyday work done by police, escalate nearly 20 percent of the time in Albuquerque from something like a simple speeding ticket to a warrant for someone’s arrest? How does someone go from speeding to work to sitting in jail?
And why jail at all? Does the threat of jail compel compliance and contribute to safer streets? If it does, there’s no evidence to prove it. According to the New Mexico Department of Transportation, an average day in New Mexico in 2018, for example, included 128 vehicle accidents involving 318 people that resulted in 54 people injured and one person killed. Compared to data from 2000, in which an average day resulted in 76 people injured and one person killed, nothing has changed.
The data show that enforcing traffic laws with armed police does nothing to enhance public safety, and this is the reason that nearly every proposal to defund police always includes a call to end police traffic patrol. There is no upside to putting cops on patrol, but there is a terrifying downside. Traffic stops by police, according to Sociologist Alex Vitale, “often lead to unwarranted searches, tense confrontations, and, in some cases, deadly force. Consider, for example, the arrest of Sandra Bland, originally pulled over for failing to signal a lane change only to die just three days later in jail.”
Is there some other reason Albuquerque relies on police traffic patrol? Perhaps sending armed cops out on traffic patrol is a cost-effective way to enforce traffic laws? The budget, however, doesn’t bear that out. More than half of APD’s 2020/2021 budget of $207 million will be devoted to “Neighborhood Policing,” which presumably funds the Field Services Bureau, where 604 uniformed officers will engage in activities that include traffic patrol. Traffic enforcement also occurs out of the Metro Traffic Division, staffed by 40 officers, which has a budget for the coming fiscal year of $6.6 million. So while it would be difficult to put an exact price tag on the cost of APD’s enforcement of traffic laws, the Field Services Bureau and Metro Traffic Division, which conduct all, or nearly all, of APD’s traffic law enforcement, consume possibly as much as half of APD’s nearly quarter billion dollar annual budget.
Short of covering every APD cruiser in solid gold, Albuquerque would be hard pressed to design a more expensive way to enforce its traffic laws. And in return for the millions and millions of dollars it spends, Albuquerque gets little of anything in return that we might recognize as public safety.
It does get to levy lots of fines and court fees though. The entire system is built on it. One 2018 study in Urban Affairs Review by a Harvard University scholar concluded that “local governments tend to rely on traffic tickets and other fines when other revenue sources are limited.” A 2009 study published in the Journal of Law and Economics, explained the logic this way. “Traffic tickets provide an attractive revenue source for local governments because the amount of revenue that can be generated is often unrestricted, they provide a mechanism to capture revenue from nonresidents and nonvoters, and most traffic offenses have a low strict-liability threshold to achieve a conviction.”
Armed cops on patrol is an expensive way to enforce traffic laws, so Albuquerque pays for it, at least partly, by increasing the intensity of traffic enforcement and prosecution (more fines, more escalating fines, more threats of jail). It doesn’t require careful analysis to know that this pay-a-fine-or-get-a-warrant approach to traffic enforcement requires first the criminalization of simple traffic laws. Consider Ferguson, Missouri. The US Department of Justice investigated Ferguson in 2014 after the police killing of Mike Brown and released its report on that investigation in March 2015. On investigation focused specifically on the police citation-court warrant relationship in Ferguson. The DOJ identified 16,000 outstanding warrants in a city of 21,000 people. A majority of these warrants were generated from minor traffic violations. In the Executive Summary, they write,
Most strikingly, the court issues municipal arrest warrants not on the basis of public safety needs, but rather as a routine response to missed court appearances and required fine payments. In 2013 alone, the court issued over 9,000 warrants on cases stemming in large part from minor violations such as parking infractions, traffic tickets, or housing code violations. Jail time would be considered far too harsh a penalty for the great majority of these code violations, yet Ferguson’s municipal court routinely issues warrants for people to be arrested and incarcerated for failing to timely pay related fines and fees. Under state law, a failure to appear in municipal court on a traffic charge involving a moving violation also results in a license suspension. Ferguson has made this penalty even more onerous by only allowing the suspension to be lifted after payment of an owed fine is made in full. Further, until recently, Ferguson also added charges, fines, and fees for each missed appearance and payment. Many pending cases still include such charges that were imposed before the court recently eliminated them, making it as difficult as before for people to resolve these cases.
The DOJ described this as a “violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, which prohibits discriminatory policing on the basis of race.” The State of New Mexico does not require the Albuquerque Police Department to record the race or ethnicity of drivers it stops and cites, so we can’t easily assess this pattern in Albuquerque based on traffic citations alone. What is perhaps most interesting, for our purposes at least, is that the pattern DOJ found in Ferguson—the escalation of minor traffic citations into fines and fees and, for some infractions, incarceration—is as common in Albuquerque as it has been in Ferguson. We analyzed all 186 cases in which simple citations escalated into bench warrants in order to determine if any patterns exist related to which infractions most commonly escalate into warrants.
Police in Albuquerque issued 517 citations related to vehicle registration, which constituted nearly a quarter of the nearly 2,000 citations issued by APD. Nearly as common were citations related to vehicle insurance (454) and speeding (403). Citations related to the driver’s license (222), moving violations, excluding speeding (197), and improper/faulty equipment (100) comprised the next most common types of citations.
It is impossible, given the data, to find a direct correlation between an individual citation (speeding, for example) and a bench warrant. There are often multiple citations per stop, and there are multiple mechanisms that trigger the issuance of bench warrants. But we can find interesting correlations between APD traffic citations and the subsequent warrants for arrest issued by the Metropolitan court. For example, 79 of the 377 citations that APD issued to motorists for carrying no proof of insurance eventually escalated into bench warrants issued by the court. Speeding (57 warrants from 403 citations), and expired registration (42 warrants from 211 citations), were the next most common.
Primary and Secondary Infractions
Analyzing the data this way, however, doesn’t tell us much. All we know is that the most frequent citations that APD issues generate the largest number of warrants. Another way to consider the relationship between citations and bench warrants, however, would be to separate infractions into two categories. Let’s call the first category primary infractions. Primary infractions are those that are visible on the road and are directly related to public safety. Speeding would be a good example. A cop sees a motorist allegedly speeding, pulls that motorist over, and issues a citation.
Secondary infractions, however, are different. These are the infractions invisible a cop can’t see on the street. Driving with an expired license is a good example of a secondary infraction. A cop does not know a motorist is driving with an expired license until first making a traffic stop for a primary infraction. Also, secondary infractions are less correlated to public safety. Police on patrol can identify a primary infraction, such as a speeding motorist, without first pulling that motorist over, and we might all agree that speeding potentially threatens the safety of other motorists. There is an obvious correlation between speeding and traffic safety. Conversely, police on patrol cannot identify, or easily identify, secondary infractions. A cop on patrol cannot identify a motorist driving on an expired driver’s license without first pulling that motorist over. And unlike most primary infractions, such as driving with a broken taillight or speeding, most secondary infractions, such as driving with an expired license, do not constitute public safety issues in the same way that primary infractions do. Put it this way: no driver has ever crashed into another driver because they were driving with an expired license.
And yet when we compile a list of the citations that most often escalate into bench warrants, we don’t find citations for speeding, or other primary infractions, among them. The citations that produce the highest rate of bench warrants are secondary infractions—no license, no registration, no insurance. Albuquerque’s Metropolitan court issued bench warrants for the arrest of nearly 49 percent of all those who received citations in January 2020 for driving with a suspended license. The court issued warrants for the arrest of nearly 39 percent of those cited for driving without insurance and issued warrants to 30 percent of all motorists cited by APD for driving without a license.
One could make any number of reasonable claims about the potential problems posed by unlicensed drivers driving uninsured, unregistered vehicles on Albuquerque’s roads and, based on those claims, argue for regulation that encourages or requires licensing and registration. But it would not be reasonable to include among those claims that driving with an expired license poses a danger in any way similar to the danger posed by a drunk or speeding driver. We want drunk drivers off the road, and we want them off now. We want uninsured drivers to…well, get insurance.
Traffic Enforcement and the Price of Legal Compliance
Another difference between primary from secondary infractions is the cost of compliance. It does not cost a motorist money to obey the speed limit in order to avoid a speeding citation. Complying with speeding laws, in other words, comes with no financial burden. And this may explain why fewer primary infractions escalate to bench warrants. There is no cost barrier to obeying the law. The non-compliance of primary infractions, in other words, is not conditioned by a motorist’s ability to afford legal compliance.
Compliance with all secondary citations, however, come with a price tag. One must purchase compliance in order to avoid citations for secondary infractions. And thus, it is reasonable to consider the implications of imposing large, cash fines, and then escalating those fines with additional fees, on people cited for violating laws they likely couldn’t afford to obey in the first place. If you can’t afford to buy insurance for your car, you probably can’t afford to pay the fine. We find example after example of this in court records. In January, APD cited a man for having no insurance. In March the court converted his fines, which escalated after he failed to pay, and culminated in the conversion of his fines into a two-day jail sentence. Here’s a fine. Can’t pay? Go to jail.
In July, a Metro court judge released a woman who’d been arrested on a bench warrant for failure to appear, which is the most common reason the Metropolitan Court issues warrants. “The Bench Warrant is served; the Administrative Warrant Fee of $100.00 previously assessed is imposed and converted to jail, and the Defendant is given credit for 2 days already served.” In a February case, a Metro court judge sentenced a woman to time served after she pleaded guilty to driving without insurance following an arrest based on a previous warrant. Want to get out of jail? Plead guilty.
A 2019 study by the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) examined the impact of fines and bench warrants on legal compliance. Researchers interviewed people against whom the courts had issued bench warrants in order to understand how simple traffic citations or misdemeanors turn into bench warrants, and to consider the personal and social cost of enforcement based on warrant-based compliance for simple citations.
People often explained to the researchers that they continued driving despite an expired registration or driver’s license because of “an inadequate public transportation system.” They had no other way to get to work. As mentioned above, a vast majority of bench warrants issued by the Metropolitan Court in Albuquerque (93 percent) were issued for a failure to appear. People in the RIT study offered many reasons for missing court dates. They didn’t have childcare or their “children [were] restricted from entering the criminal courtroom.” Some explained that they couldn’t afford the insurance and they couldn’t afford the fine for not having insurance and they skipped the court date because they figured they’d be jailed if they appeared in court and who wants that. As a result, the court issued a bench warrant and suddenly everything was worse. “Almost every respondent that had a job prior to their warrant,” noted the researchers “lost their job post warrant issuance.”
Judges use bench warrants to compel compliance, but it compels much more than that. The study’s authors concluded it compels avoidance behaviors. People living with warrants “steered clear of public assistance and did not receive benefits that they were eligible for.” If the punitive police citation-court warrant system of traffic enforcement produces public safety, no study has found it.
The Slow-Motion Disaster of Police on Patrol
Data on traffic safety demonstrates that police traffic enforcement in Albuquerque does not improve public safety and does not generate safer streets. And the data on bench warrants based on police traffic enforcement in Albuquerque demonstrate that it is a system designed to criminalize motorists’ inability to afford the costs of owning and operating an automobile. This is not by accident or the result of some policy failure, it is by design. If public safety were elevated above all other goals, no cops would patrol Albuquerque streets, and bench warrants would not criminalize the financial burden of owning an automobile.
Armed cops on patrol and court-issued bench warrants make no positive contribution to public safety and fail at the one thing it promises to do: compelling compliance. The infractions that lead to the most warrants produce case after case of escalating fines that a majority of motorists in Albuquerque fail to pay, and never pay. Nearly 40 percent of bench warrants issued by the court in our study remain outstanding. In addition, in all of the warrants that resulted in jail time, the reason the court-imposed jail time (usually a two-day sentence in the metropolitan detention center) was because motorists could not afford to pay the fines. None of those in our study who were incarcerated based on a traffic citation was incarcerated because of anything they did on the road, in their car. They were incarcerated because they couldn’t pay the fines. Such an approach does not create the conditions for public safety. As the RIT study notes, bench warrants, and the incarcerations this produces, create cascading impacts for people and communities that include job loss, additional legal and financial problems, and the possibility of eviction or foreclosure as a result of job loss.
In other words, putting Albuquerque cops on traffic patrol does nothing to make roads safer, but it does trap people in a punitive system that too often contributes to job loss, evictions, and lingering financial and legal issues. The RIT researchers caught a glimpse of the unexpected, cascading impact of bench warrants on people’s lives during an interview with a woman named Mia.
Mia: So one day I’m home and laying in bed, it’s night time, I could start crying, back then I probably didn’t cry because just the shit we go through. So one day he comes home and it’s winter and it’s about 11 or 12 and he says, he goes “babe I just got hit by a fucking car . . .” I said “what?” He said, “right down the street I was walking and the fucking car it just fucking hit me . . .” And I was like “well you got to go to the hospital,” and he’s like, “fuck that, I just got up and I came home, I came home quickly, I hurried up and I came home,” because he was scared of going to the hospital.
Q: Because of the warrant?
Mia: Because of his warrant. So he literally got hit by a car, got up off the ground, got up and walked home. Continued his journey home.
Q: Wow, so what happened in the moment?
Mia: So it kind of stopped, we just left it there.