The Police and Court System: Neoliberal America's Tax Collectors
Date Written: 2015-10-27
Year Published: 2015
Resource Type: Article
Cx Number: CX18055
The criminal justice system has increasingly become the preferred way to fund city governments in the modern neoliberal nightmare that is the United States. The police target the poor for petty infractions that produce fines. When predictably these fines cannot be paid additional fines are piled on top and the person is thrown in prison.
Because class and race are so closely linked in the United States this focus on squeezing the poor has meant the targeting of black and brown people in particular. Looking through data released to the Department of Justice the New York Times found that in Ferguson, where 67% of the population is black, 85% of vehicle stops and 93% of arrests were of black people. A 2011 report from The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights regarding racial profiling again revealed the problem to be widespread. A 2007 study in Arizona revealed black, Latino, and Native American people were far more likely to be stopped for "traffic violations" than white drivers. In West Virginia a 2009 study revealed black drivers were stopped at 1.64 times the rate of white drivers. Similar studies in Illinois, Minnesota, and Texas yielded the same results. Even when researchers focused narrowly on individual counties -- such as studies conducted in Sacramento County, California and DuPage County, Illinois -- they found that driving while black is a stoppable offense.
And this is hardly a new phenomenon. A 1992 investigation by the Orlando Sentinel revealed that the Volusia County Sheriff’s Department targeted black and brown drivers along I-95 for roadside shakedowns where police used civil-asset forfeiture laws -- laws that legalize theft of private property by police -- to seize money and property. The Sentinel's analysis of officer dash cams revealed that "almost 70% of the motorists stopped were black or Hispanic, an enormously disproportionate figure because the vast majority of interstate drivers are white." The Sheriff’s Department seized nearly $8 million in the scam.
More recently a series by the Washington Post revealed that since 2001 "there have been 61,998 cash seizures made on highways and elsewhere without search warrants or indictments… totaling more than $2.5 billion dollars." Writing under an alias Illinois Deputy Ron Hain explained the purpose of this literal highway robbery stating, "All of our home towns are sitting on a tax-liberating gold mine."
Internal communications gathered by the Post revealed that police and the city government in Washington DC planned on increasing revenue gained by civil-asset forfeiture in their future budget projections.
For a peek into how these forfeitures work on the ground consider the case of Ron Henderson and Jennifer Boatright Texas natives driving with Boatright's two young children from Houston to Linden. After stopping at a convenience store in the town of Tenaha they were tailed by police for several miles down the road at which point they were pulled over. The officer claimed that Henderson who is Latino was driving in the left lane for too long, the kind of flimsy excuse used in racial profiling based stops. Upon searching the car the officer seized $6,037, the couple's entire savings, which they had brought with them to purchase a used car. At the station the county district attorney laid it out for them, they could either give the city their money or she would have them arrested for money laundering and child endangerment. She made it clear that the latter charge would result in Boatright's children being put in foster care. In tears Boatright purchased her children's freedom from the town of Tenaha for just over $6,000.