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Decriminalization of Minor Traffic Violations

September 30, 2021
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WRITTEN BY Jill Barnas

Traffic violations can range from minor infractions (e.g., speeding, illegal parking) to serious crimes (e.g., DWI, hit and run) and may result in arrest and subsequent jail time. Fines from traffic violations generate general operating revenue for local governments and municipalities.  Traffic violations can lead to a cycle of debt and incarceration for motorists of low socio-economic status. Currently, 22 states and Washington, D.C., have reduced minor traffic violations from criminal offenses to non-criminal offenses or civil infractions to decrease the associated costs related to court appearances, jail operation, and probation supervision.

Highlights

  • In 2019, Missouri law enforcement agencies reported 1,524,640 vehicle stops, resulting in 102,755 searches and 74,553 arrests.
    • Black motorists were twice as likely to be stopped compared to White motorists.
  • The cost associated with court proceedings and jail time for those who fail to pay fines and fees may create shortfalls in general operating revenue.  
  • Unpaid traffic tickets and missed court appearances result in warrants for arrest and possible jail time, which may lead to lost wages, employment, or housing.

Limitations

  • Law enforcement agencies report vehicle stop data grouped by race and exclude other variables such as age and sex.
  • It is unknown to what extent the traffic stops reported are considered pretextual in nature. 
  • The Missouri Department of Corrections and local jails combine traffic violations with other non-violent crimes. Therefore, it is unknown how many individuals are incarcerated or in jail for traffic offenses only.
  • The effects of decriminalizing minor traffic violations on the behavior of motorists and law enforcement officers remains unknown.
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