That’s the Ticket

Black, Latinx and unhoused people in California are hit harder with citations for non-traffic infractions compared with their white peers, a legal advocacy group announced in its new report.

And San Francisco hits Black and Latinx people as hard as anywhere.

Those are some of the takeaways in “Cited for Being in Plain Sight: How California Polices Being Black, Brown and Unhoused in Public.” The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area released the report’s findings in a September 30 press conference.

The organization found a disproportionate impact on Black, Latinx and homeless people when police ticket them for minor offenses. They also often get ticketed for sitting or sleeping in public, and sometimes for loitering — essentially standing — according to the Lawyers’ Committee. The organization gathered data by examining law enforcement and county court databases throughout the state.

According to the Lawyers’ Committee, law enforcement in nine counties issued 256,528 citations unrelated to traffic in the 2017-18 fiscal year. These were for infractions — not misdemeanors or felonies — and fines started from $200. While the fines don’t carry an immediate criminal penalty, they lead to warrants and jail time if unpaid.

Recent protests against police killings of Black people followed severe policing of people selling loose cigarettes and SWAT teams executing no-knock warrants to fatal results of detainees. 

Ticketing for acts done in public space compounds existing tensions people of color and low-income people have with law enforcement, said Tifanei Ressl-Moyer, a Thurgood Marshall fellow at the Lawyers’ Committee. 

“Black, Latinx, homeless and disabled Californians are constantly targeted, surveilled and fined hundreds of dollars for everyday behaviors like sleeping, owning a dog or simply existing in public,” she said. “For some, failure to pay or appear in court may even lead to arrest. For others, these encounters with police can be dangerous and, in some cases, deadly.”

Throughout California, the Lawyers’ Committee found, Black people are 9.7 times more likely to receive a citation than white people.

In San Francisco, Black people and Latinx people, respectively, are 4.5 and 1.8 times more likely to be cited than their white counterparts. 

This tracks with the well-documented racial disparity among the City’s general and homeless populations. Black people make up 5% of the citywide population, while comprising 37% of the homeless population, according to the City’s most recent point-in-time homeless count, while Latinx people represent about 15% overall and 18% of homeless people in San Francisco.

The University of California, Berkeley reported the City enforcing about two dozen local anti-homeless ordinances. 

But unhoused San Franciscans can take heart in the City stopping the issuance of bench warrants for failing to appear in court in 2015. The following year, judges tossed some 66,000 outstanding warrants originating from homelessness-related infractions. 

In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle editorial board, then-Presiding Judge John Stewart explained the reason behind that mass revocation.

“You’re putting somebody in jail because they’re poor and can’t pay a fine,” he told the Chronicle. “We got a lot of criticism, but we thought it was the right thing to do.” Today, unhoused people may arrange lower fines and other arrangements to take care of their tickets.

The Lawyers’ Committee recommended alternatives to enforcement, such as state legislation, city moratoriums and diversion of police funds from enforcement of non-traffic violations.