In 25 States of the United States, motorists accused of speeding can face either a criminal charge or a traffic offence, and the type of prosecution brought is chosen at the discretion of police officers and the courts.
Using speeding data from 18 counties in Virginia over a period of nine years, researchers found large racial disparities in who was condemned for a criminal offence.
Black motorists stopped for speeding were nearly twice as likely as white drivers to be condemned for a criminal charge when their speed had been in the range qualifying for the most serious charge.
Among the motorists who had been driving at excess speed and who were condemned for a criminal offence, black drivers were likelier than white ones to be accused of a minor crime instead of a traffic offence.
In general, police officers reduced the possible accusation from a charge to a traffic offence when they were on duty in counties in which black motorists represented a larger share of drivers than in other counties.
Among drivers accused of an offence by law officers, black drivers were likelier than white ones to be condemned for a criminal charge by the courts.
So why was this the case?
- Black motorists were less likely than white motorists to attend an obligatory court hearing.
- Black motorists were less likely than white motorists to have a lawyer present in court.
- Black motorists had a higher probability than white motorists of living in areas where drivers were allowed to pay in advance for charges rather than appearing in court (which results in an automatic condemnation for a criminal charge).
These three factors explained approximately four fifths of the racial disparities in the convictions.
The majority of motorists condemned for a traffic charge did not go to prison, but there are other repercussions.
- Applications for jobs, housing and other services involve asking candidates to show whether they have a criminal record.
- A criminal charge can count as part of an individual’s previous record if the person is sentenced for a new offence, a factor that increases the penalty for this charge.
- Apart from this, the average fine and legal costs imposed for a criminal charge in Virginia were up to 120 dollars more than a traffic offence.
- Some states suspend the driving licence of persons who do not pay the fines and associated taxes. (Virginia abandoned this practice in 2019.)
- A criminal condemnation adds negative points to the driving record of an individual and can increase the cost of motor insurance.
Politicians could perhaps find fairer ways of enforcing the speeding laws.