Report: Alabama police more likely to ticket for lack of insurance than speeding

Alabama Appleseed report details burdens fines and fees impose on those least able to address them

By: - August 9, 2023 7:01 am
A close-up of police lights.

A close-up of police lights. (Getty)

Traffic tickets and citations have become a heavy financial burden for low income individuals and families living in Alabama.

A report published by Alabama Appleseed last week documented the lives of people dealing with the fallout from receiving traffic citations, the associated fines, along with the additional penalties they were levied as they dealt with court proceedings stemming from the original violation.

“What struck me the most in the reporting that I did for about a year was just how broken those folks are who are sitting in those courtrooms every day,” said Eddie Burkhalter, a researcher with Alabama Appleseed who authored the report. “These are people that are already living on the edge. A lot of these folks are just barely enough to scrape by, to turn the electricity on, to keep food in their kids’ mouths.”

The report, based on a year’s worth of research that included nine court visits, 60 hearings and interviews with current and former law enforcement officers, retired judges, attorneys and court bailiffs, found that police officers made stops that had less to do with safety and more with administrative infractions.

The report refers to the Selective Traffic Enforcement Program (STEP), a federal program administered by the Alabama Department of Economic Affairs (ADECA) designed to encourage motorists to drive safely.

Burkhalter obtained a database of traffic stops from about 156 state law enforcement agencies that received STEP grants between 2017 and 2022. The data displayed the reason for the stop and the actions that police officers took for the infraction.

Most of the people were issued citations for administrative violations and not for reasons related to public safety, which is the reason that program existed in the first place. For example, most people were cited for either not having insurance or failing to show proof of insurance instead of speeding.

Of those law enforcement agencies who received STEP funding, 107 of them had at least one year in which drivers without insurance or proof of insurance were proportionately issued more citations than those who were caught speeding.

The disparity worsened in more prosperous areas of the state, according to the report. For drivers stopped in Vestavia Hills, a mostly white and wealthy suburb of Birmingham, police funded by the STEP grant cited more people for speeding than for not having insurance.

When analyzing the data, researchers found that 42% of people pulled over for speeding were given a warning instead of receiving a citation. But only 9% of those caught driving without insurance were given a warning. The rest were ticketed. In 2019, 57% were given warnings and released for speeding while only 5% of those driving without insurance were given the same consideration.

The toll

The charges Richard Robertson, 33, owes $1,000 in fines and fees because of citations he received for non-moving violations.

Burkhalter and Appleseed researchers reviewed his court record in an online database and found that state troopers had issued a “handful” of traffic citations stemming from three stops from 2007-2009. He was stopped in January by the Anniston Police Department. He was also pulled over in 2003; in August 2022 and in September 2022 for driving with an expired license and failing to register his vehicle.

In November a Calhoun County district judge filed an order indicating that he missed a court appearance. That was followed by an arrest warrant that was issued in January 2023.

Those fines, along with the subsequent missed court dates, and the court fees totaled $1,000. A state trooper impounded his vehicle because of all the previous violations.

Robertson had already been living on the edge because he was financially unstable. He had a job painting houses, but without transportation, getting to work was difficult.  He has also been suffering from the lingering effect of a head injury after getting hit by a vehicle.

He reported to the municipal court in Anniston on Feb. 8 for the charge of driving with an expired license. He was dressed in jeans, a T-shirt and tennis shoes spattered with white paint.

With his car impounded, Robertson walked about 40 miles the day before his court hearing to the home of an acquaintance, where he slept the night before the hearing. He then slept in the corner of a parking deck to ensure he would make it to his court hearing the next day.

According to data compiled by Appleseed, Anniston police, who also received STEP grants, issued citations in 29% of the cases that involved driver’s license violations in 2021, but only in 15% of the cases where a person was driving above the speed limit.

Anniston Police Chief Nick Bowles defended the practice in an interview with the Reflector on Monday.

“Many times, the problem of not having insurance goes along with other problems like driving with a suspended license,” he said. “There is a reason their licenses were suspended. They are not driving safely on the roads.”

The Anniston Police Department’s policy offers police officers latitude for issuing a citation, according to Bowles. Every stop is different, and the policies allow officers the flexibility for deciding each of the cases on an individual basis. One such rule discourages police officers from issuing citations for motorists driving only slightly above the speed limit.

Police officers in the community are also trained to watch for implicit bias.

“I bet I’ve had six training sessions this past year on implicit bias,” Bowles said.

Poor incentives

It is difficult to determine whether there are disparities in convictions for traffic violations. Alabama law enforcement agencies do not make that data publicly available.

Multiple studies over the years however have demonstrated that minorities and people of color are more likely to be pulled over by the police, the first step that traps people in the ballooning cycle of fines and fees.

A study by researchers at Stanford University published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour in 2020 found racial bias in traffic stops throughout the country.

Many advocates say the system appears to incentivize officers to issue traffic citations because of the need for the money stemming from those fines and fees.

“Informally, if you weren’t writing a ticket an hour you’d get into trouble,” said Roy Bennett, a former Anniston police officer quoted in the report. “The department knows that they could get reduced funds the following year if the department’s not productive.”

The fines also fund the courts system. Alabama law allows for a base rate for fines and fees, as well as court costs, but counties are allowed to pass laws that increase the court courts as a potential source of funding.

Local judges have flexibility for how they handle cases for individuals in their courtrooms. Some will issue a warrant after a person misses a hearing even once, or they could allow for some grace.

According to the Alabama Appleseed report, Montgomery Municipal Court Judge Angela Starr talked Aja Colley through the steps she would need to take to get her driver’s license back and put her on a $25 per month payment plan to pay back all the fines and fees that she owed.

But a person’s experience in the justice system can vary greatly, the report says. Financial status can play a role, but so can the whims of the different actors they encounter, from the police who first pulled them over to the judge presiding over their cases.

“It is justice by geography,” said Tim Curry, the Fines and Fees Justice Center’s policy and research director, who also found a similar development in other parts of the state as he prepared for his interview with the Reflector.

The Fines and Fees Justice Center, a nationally advocacy group working to end fee-based funding with offices in Nevada, Florida, New York and new Mexico, published a report last year on assessment and surcharges that states impose. There are 32 states which automatically levy a fee for having to do business in court, regardless of whether a person is convicted or not. Another 19 states impose court fees that raise revenue for the state or county general fund.

Louisiana imposes a $5 to $100 fee for people charged in criminal cases for traffic offenses to fund court clerks. In Mississippi, there is a $90.50 assessment for minor traffic offenses, such as speeding or driving past an intersection with a red light, that helps fund the state and counties with funding.

According to the report, Alabama levies a host of fees that go to fund all sorts of agencies. The state will charge $30 people for a criminal processing fee and $22 in municipal court fees to fund the court system.

Alabama will charge between $92-$185 in criminal and juvenile docket fees to go toward the General Fund.

Victims will also receive their cut of the fees, between $2-$15 to fund the Alabama Crime Victims’ Compensation Commission. There is then a $23 fee to provide money for people who need legal assistance but cannot afford it.

Curry didn’t take issue with the original fine, but he proposed ending the associated fees that benefit court personnel such as judges and clerks. There are also fees that go to pay for infrastructure or technology. People can also be levied fees that will fund the state’s General Fund, acting like a tax that only those who do business with the court will have to pay.

Some of which could be as high as 15 times the original fine.

“I would argue that everyone benefits from having a good legal system, but only a few people are having to pay for it,” Curry said.

The Appleseed report also cited the Cleburne County Jail Fund Act, which charges another $30 on top of what has already been included for fines, fees, and court costs.

“Paying $100 for me is different than what it would be for a single mother living on food stamps,” Curry said. “I can afford to pay the fee, and once I do, that is it. But it criminalizes people who are living in poverty.”

Cleburne County Commissioner Terry Hendrix defends the fee. It was created because the county needed to fund the cost of constructing the jail.

“We are a poor county,” Hendrix said. “We only have an $8 million budget.”

But Robertson also struggles with his $1,000 court fees.

“Homeless,” Robertson wrote on a notepad. “Walk 40 miles…I’m a very well-mannered person. Lost everything. Had to walk here to stay out of jail. I’m just pissed and tired.”


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Ralph Chapoco
Ralph Chapoco

Ralph Chapoco covers state politics as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. His main responsibility is the criminal justice system in Alabama.