As anger and frustration continue in Ferguson, Missouri over the killing of Michael Brown by a police officer, which appears to be a result of the use of excessive force, attention must also go to the excessive economic coercion used by America’s police. Frivolous traffic stops and coercive threats allow police to extract money from citizens through tickets, fines, and court costs. Economic intimidation via petty stops, searches, and seizures is a national problem that finds particular resonance in minority communities like Ferguson.
Last year, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found that black drivers nationwide were more likely to be stopped than whites, 12.8 percent of black drivers compared to 10.2 of white drivers. Seven percent of black drivers were ticketed, compared to 4.8 percent for white drivers.
This is particularly true in St. Louis. Eighty-six percent of traffic stops in Ferguson were of black motorists in 2013 despite blacks comprising 67 percent of the population. Yet whites are more likely to harbor illegal items than their black counterparts: when police searched drivers, they found contraband 22 percent of the time when the driver was black and 34 percent when the driver was white.
The Washington Post caught a glimpse of black frustration in Ferguson over the use of harassing traffic stops: “More than four people in the car, they’re going to pull you over,” said Earl Lee Jr., a 41-year-old warehouse worker who lives in a nearby suburb. “Tint on your windows, they’re going to pull you over. Too early in the morning, they think you’re up to something. Too late, they think you’re up to something. When are you supposed to drive?”
In Missouri, traffic fines carry financial penalties ranging from $10 up to $468. In addition to the penalty for the actual offense, people are then charged a court fee about $60. Failure to wear a seatbelt when pulled over adds another $10 to the final tally. Violations like defective windshield wipers ($143) and failure to halt at stop signs ($93) can be easily manipulated by police to bolster municipal finances. If an individual fights the ticket they still incur court costs, even if they win the case.
In a community like Ferguson, residents can ill-afford that financial fight. According to the Census Bureau, 22 percent lived below the poverty line in 2012 and per capita income barely topped $20,000.
There are other ways for police to extract money from citizens. Civil forfeiture lets police seize property from detained persons, including those simply stopped on the highway for possible traffic violations. The forfeiture is based only on preponderance of evidence, not evidence beyond a reasonable doubt. According to The Economist, “civil-asset forfeiture has a long history, [but] it took off in America following passage of some amendments to the Comprehensive Drug Abuse and Prevention Act in 1984 that allowed police to keep and spend forfeiture proceeds.”
No warrant from a court is necessary to confiscate property, only the suspicion of a single officer. Regaining that seized property can be a lengthy and expensive fight. As reported last year in an investigation by the New Yorker, many victims simply give up and cut their losses. Meanwhile, police enjoy a financial windfall: the value of forfeited property has escalated from just under $100 million annually in the mid-1980s to over $2 billion last year. Although specific demographic data relating to forfeited property is hard to ascertain, research by Mary Murphy published in the Texas Journal on Civil Liberties & Civil Rights suggested that racial profiling exacerbated law enforcement’s abuse of civil forfeiture.
St. Louis County, where Ferguson is located, seized $227,000 worth of property in 2012 via civil forfeiture. Only $1,292 of assets were returned to the owner. The county also reported that just seven of its 88 confiscations ultimately involved criminal charges. That’s 81 instances of property being confiscated without a charge, let alone a criminal conviction. Across Missouri as a whole, 329 of the 557 civil forfeitures involved criminal charges.
The physical and economic intimidation at the disposal of the Ferguson police department makes it the city’s second-largest revenue generator. Currently, the police produce over $2.7 million to the city’s total revenue of $12.5 million.
Although the revenue of Ferguson PD is not itemized by race, it’s easy to see how Ferguson’s black community – two-thirds of city’s population – feels exploited. Their arrests, their traffic stops, their tickets, and their court costs are siphoned through these procedures to prop up a city government and police force that is overwhelmingly white.
Curtis Harris is a historian of 19th and 20th century America. His academic research has focused on the role of the state and civil society in slavery, emancipation, citizenship, gender, and physical education.