Wednesday, April 14, 2021
Housing Homelessness Racist citations for minor offenses criminalize homeless people

Racist citations for minor offenses criminalize homeless people

New study looks at non-traffic citations, which can lead to arrests for behavior that wealthy white people engage in every day.


Black people in California are almost ten times as likely as white people to get minor infraction tickets that can add up to hundreds of dollars and lead to arrest, a new study shows.

Citations for offenses that are basically existing in public space target Black and Latinx populations.

The report, by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, looked at data from the 250,000 citations issued by police in the state of non-traffic crimes that are punishable by fines.

The largest number of those citations – 37 percent – were for the “crime” of existing in public space. Many of the people who got those citations were experiencing homelessness, and can’t possible afford to pay fines and fees that can quickly add up to almost $500.

Latinx residents are 5.8 times as likely as white people to get non-traffic citations, the report shows.

“These are tickets for minor behavior that have major impacts,” Elisa Della-Piana, one of the authors of the study, said this morning.

Most of the citations, she said, are for sitting, standing, or sleeping in public spaces or for curfew violations. “Never in any of these cases is there harm to a person or property,” she said.

The Lawyer’s Committee used the California Public Records Act to compile data on these non-traffic infractions – and one of the things they learned is that most jurisdictions in the state don’t keep track of the citations by race.

But the citations are a big deal: Between 2006 and 2019, there’s been a 97 percent increase in laws criminalizing camping in public, Tifanei Ressl-Moyer, another study author, said.

The citations are used to “criminalize everyday behavior” that white people and people with housing never get cited for, Tori Larson, who also worked on the report, said.

The citations are racist – and target people who often have no ability to pay. Almost half of the tickets never get paid.

“The data studied for this report shows a pattern of enforcement of petty laws against California’s Black, Latinx and unhoused residents, enforcement that would not be politically tenable if it targeted wealthy white Californians,” the study notes.

“In interviews of people ticketed, no one was fined less than $100, and most people were charged between $250 and $500, which is consistent with California’s fee schedule. A survey for this report of 10 counties found that half of the counties still issue warrants on non-traffic infractions for people who cannot or do not pay or appeal. California has over $10 billion dollars in uncollectable infraction debts, and in the meantime, thousands of people are at risk of arrest for the most minor of violations.”

In other words: A homeless person, particularly if that person is Black or Latinx, gets a ticket for something like loitering (which I didn’t think was even a crime in this state anymore) or sitting on the sidewalk or putting up a tent (or walking a dog that doesn’t have a license).

The person can’t possibly pay $100, and in some cases many not even have the money to take the bus to court to contest the cite.

So the fine goes unpaid, and a judge issues an arrest warrant (which doesn’t happen in SF but does in many counties) and suddenly a person whose only “crime” is being Black and homeless faces arrest and jail time.

“Most common are citations for everyday human behaviors such as sitting, sleeping, and standing, and the cause for citation amounts to existence in public space; included in this category are citations for loitering, curfew violations, and sleeping or camping,” the report states.

“This is not an issue for people who can afford to pay hundreds of dollars in fines and fees. For low-income Californians who cannot afford to pay the fines, this means that what started as an act of ordinary human behavior—sitting, walking across the street, standing and talking to friends—can escalate quickly to arrest and jail.”

And this is costing a lot of money:

“Between 2013 and 2017, police dispatches regarding “homeless concerns” [in San Francisco[] increased by 72%, despite no corresponding increase in the unhoused population. In 2015, San Francisco spent around $20.6 million dollars on enforcing 30 types of non-traffic violations; $18.5 million of that was paid to police. In 2015, the Office of the City Administrative Officer for Los Angeles reported that it expected the cost of the city’s homelessness services across all agencies to be an estimated $100 million per year The same report indicated that anywhere from 53% to 87% of the City’s expense comes from the Los Angeles Police Department’s interactions with unhoused people.”

The report concludes that the only solution is to get rid of these infractions:

“California does not need non-traffic infraction enforcement. Though many Californians were attached to the policing and punishment of marijuana possession, it was abolished given the racism embedded in enforcement and the relative innocuousness of having marijuana. Many of the non-traffic infractions that remain on the books, like loitering and sit/lie laws, have an even more racist history. The current enforcement of these infractions has similarly deep racial disparities, as demonstrated in this report. And the behaviors our current system punishes are even more innocuous.”

The authors conclude:

“It may be tempting to advocate solely for back-end solutions to the harms outlined in this report, such as reducing fines and fees if people prove they cannot pay. The authors of this report used to advocate for ability to pay as a solution to fines and fees in California, and after years of experience in design and implementation, have concluded that: (1) they don’t work–in two counties, approximately 50% of low-income and unhoused people were denied relief and even those who got a reduction still had to pay significant amounts, often equal to their monthly income; (2) the process is part of the punishment; often involving repeated court trips and dense forms and court bureaucracies with little to no flexibility or understanding; and (3) nothing on the back end erases the discrimination and trauma of a police encounter in the first place. As a result, this report’s recommendation is to reduce and eventually eliminate non-traffic enforcement.”

The state Legislature could do that next year.

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.


  1. This study is garbage. Spend a few days in the Tenderloin and you will realize there are many activities and behaviors that must have a response with citations currently being the only option.
    These are things like unleashed pitbulls that are allowed to just roam up and down the sidewalk regularly barking and biting pedestrians and other animals.
    There is a total disregard for crossing the street at an intersection let alone when it is safe. If someone is on two wheels like bicycles, scooters, and motorcycles or some 4 wheeled options like skateboards and motorized wheelchairs, the concept of traffic laws don’t exist – all roads become two-way traffic and sidewalks are just part of the roadway.
    And with this pandemic, despite hotel rooms being provided for many homeless people and safe-camping areas established all over the city, tents continue to be erected anywhere they want, blocking sidewalks and forcing people into the road to get by.
    Hell, even with the portable bathrooms being available every couple of blocks, people just relieve themselves where they feel like it.
    Notice I haven’t said anything about race, that’s because it is irrelevant. I invite the authors of this study and the author of this article to come down to Turk and Hyde and rent a room in an apartment or hotel for 6-8 weeks to actually understand how this neighborhood really works. There are far too many assumptions formed by white guilt and echo-chamber logic that promulgate the homeless issues through this type of weak journalism.

  2. I see our persistent troll is back. Still obsessed with attacking the BoS.

    And it is rather tone deaf to ignore that people who are homeless are harrassed for “just existing.”

  3. LCoCR: Are people being cited for “merely existing” or are they being cited for their behavior?

    I’m not sure how many San Franciscans celebrate being clipped by a bicycle walking on a Market St sidewalk. But that is behavior – bad behavior – unnecessary behavior, and there should be some way of deterring it. I don’t think simply stopping citations is the answer. But yo folks seem to – so my question then is: how do we change bad behavior?

    As for the sub-headline of ‘behavior that wealthy white people do every day’, I don’t think many of those folk erect tents, sleep in public, urinate, dig in trash etc. I’ll grant that a few tech-bros seem to sit in unusual places or congregate (loiter), jaywalk, etc. I’m not saying that behavior is tolerable. Im just wondering if the enforcemnt (citations) is different (are the bros giving a warning while the hood rats are summarily cited at the corner store? Is citation a result of attitude and disrespect? I imagine it might be even more difficult to gather evidence for those questions (and I’m not dismissing the possibility of institutional or personal bias). But do we want the truth or are we just pushing politics?

    But just saying 5x or 10x disparity numbers cited does not necessarily mean or prove anything. BART gate jumpers: it only takes a minimum of observation to realize that most of the perps are Brown or Black; and a corresponding arrest/citation rate seems to be in line with those facts. But I’d welcome evidence to the contrary instead of inflammatory rhetoric (thank the Ex for that one, iirc).

  4. Good thing that the progressive super majority on the Board of Supervisors started to turn the tide on this when they voted to begin defunding the SFPD by cutting sworn officers and diverting those dollars to substance and psych social workers.

    Not. One. Vote. To. Cut. One. Single. SFPD.

    Why did Hillary Ronen react to an August DefundSFPDNow protest to petition her at her home–City Hall has been closed–by mobilizing her political operation to police young activists of color fighting for their futures?

    Why did Hillary Ronen trot out the white supremacist trope that her children were “traumatized” by young POC protesting peacefully their home? What are the Ronens teaching their children anyway? How would her children deal with the trauma of living on the flats in the Mission, far from the leafy Ronen Bernal aerie?

    The problem here is that it is the progressives’ stock in trade to identify one toehold of identity failing in their opponents and leverage that to the hilt, often involving a ritual performance of shunning and banishing. This devalues the currency of emancipatory politics by leveraging it for tactical advantage almost always in service, direct or indirect, active or passive, of white supremacist institutions.

    Yet when a powerful white woman performs white supremacy and the progressives are dependent upon her largess, not only are all critical lips sealed on the matter, to the contrary, the intersectional progressives, legislative aides, union hacks, nonprofit staffers, piled on with the white lady to police young activists of color.

    What was Ronen’s main concern? Was she worried that people might ask questions as to how anyone not rich or tech could afford to purchase a TIC (evictions, buy outs?) in the most expensive neighborhood in the country at the top of the market on a supervisor’s and public sector attorney’s salaries? Where do working families with kids rustle up a $200K down payment?

    Or was Ronen ashamed that the protest would reveal the progressive bait and switch, that they talk a good game about progressive and left policies such as BLM and Defunding, but are only kept around, insulated from the consequences of their oppressive acts, so long as they make no meaningful change?

    None of this was lost on the young protestors. The system displayed its true colors,. Fortunately for them, they are learning the lessons of cop brutality and the bankrupt racist hypocrisy of liberal politics at a very young age. Better for them to get a head start on organizing to upend this corruption than to learn later in life.

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