Officer getting into his car
File Art: A Wichita police officer during shift change at the department’s substation near the intersection of East 21st and North Hillside streets. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

How can a traffic ticket ruin a life? 

A traffic ticket for something as simple as a broken headlight or a missing taillight can snowball into a jail sentence in Kansas for low-income people who can’t afford car repairs or fines. 

And according to some activists and state representatives, it’s more likely to happen to you if you are Black because you are more likely than others to get pulled over in the first place. 

That’s because police officers conduct what are called investigative stops, pulling over people they suspect are committing crimes. They can use small traffic infractions to justify these stops. 

So can being on the Wichita Police Department’s “gang list,” a list police maintain of individuals suspected of being gang members based on who they associate with, places they frequent or the color of clothes they wear. The WPD is being sued by the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas and Kansas Appleseed, who say this list and practice are unconstitutional. 

In January 2022, a judge ruled that the case may proceed but dismissed some claims including one regarding whether the gang list was racially discriminatory and violated the constitutional right to equal protection under the law. “Evidence of the racially disproportionate impact of a particular government policy or course of conduct will not, standing alone, satisfy the requirement that the official action was taken with a discriminatory intent,” U.S. Chief District Court Judge Eric Melgren wrote.

The Wichita Police Department denies racial profiling, but the data on traffic stops suggests disproportionate impact on people of color. An independent report investigating culture within WPD released Friday found that more than half of the officers surveyed want to increase investigative traffic stops – stops made for the purpose of investigating who or what is in the car – and more than a third want to increase searches of people and cars.

These investigative stops combined with processes and fines associated with minor traffic infractions create a ticket-to-jail pipeline for people unable to afford fines. 

Unpaid fines can lead to court appearances and suspended driver’s licenses. Driving with a suspended license or failing to appear in court can lead to bench warrants and arrests on the next traffic stop. Restriction from driving or detention in jail can both lead to job loss, further exacerbating the challenge of paying for what you can’t afford to pay for. 

Changes in law are being sought in the Kansas Legislature, but with limited success. 

Earlier this year, Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau (D-Wichita) proposed a bill that would help an estimated 3,300 Kansans out of this pipeline by letting more people apply for a restricted license that may be used when a driver’s regular license has been suspended. It’s currently in the Senate Committee on Judiciary with no discussion since Feb. 2.

In 2021, another bill put forward by Faust-Goudeau made some progress by repealing the $25 fee needed for someone to apply for a restricted license.

Why traffic fines lead to license suspensions

Around 71 percent of license suspensions in Kansas are a result of a driver not being able to pay a fine, according to Kansas Legal Services. 

In Kansas and Wichita, driving is a practical necessity. Most Wichitans drive to get to and from work. Public transportation is available, but requires long commutes. And around 100,000 Wichitans live at least a mile away from a reliable source of food, so they may need to drive to get groceries and other basic necessities. 

Which leaves people with suspended licenses facing a choice between breaking the law – and the consequences that brings – or continuing to work or get food.

In Kansas, driving on a suspended license can result in being charged with a Class B misdemeanor, which carries up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. A subsequent arrest can result in Class A misdemeanors, which carry penalties of up to one year in jail and a maximum fine of $2,500. A third and each subsequent arrest for driving on a suspended license brings a mandatory 90-day jail sentence. 

Sedgwick County Jail booked 2,502 people for driving with a suspended license last year. All but 121 faced additional charges. First-time violators usually spend around two hours in jail for only driving on a suspended license, said Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter. 

With enough offenses, a driver may have their license revoked. Restoring it can require a three-year wait.

Who receives the most traffic tickets in Wichita?

A recent report to the Wichita Citizen’s Review Board, which monitors police, shows that 20 percent of charges for traffic violations were written against Black drivers. Only 10 percent of Wichita’s population is Black, showing that Black residents are disproportionately ticketed at a rate twice their numbers. 

Driving on a suspended or revoked license was the second most common citation issued by the Wichita Police Department, with speeding being the first. More than a third of citations and arrests made from license infractions such as driving on a suspended license were against Black drivers. Hispanic drivers accounted for just under a third of similar citations. In both cases, those rates are notably out of proportion to their numbers in the general population.

Non-Hispanic white Wichitans meanwhile only received 35% of license-related citations, though they make up approximately 62% of the Wichita population, according to 2021 census estimates. Another report requested by the city looking at data from 2019 to 2021 showed that Black Wichitans received nearly the same number of license-related citations as white Wichitans in that time period.

The disparity is larger for non-moving violations, meaning violations not relating to how one is driving, than for overall violations. These include things like having a broken headlight or an expired tag. Wichita Police gave 29 percent of charges issued for these types of violations to Black drivers. 

Driving with a suspended license is considered a “moving” violation; 17 percent of moving violations are issued to Black drivers in Wichita. 

Walt Chappell believes these disparities are due to police assuming people of color are committing crimes. Chappell has served on Wichita’s Racial Profiling Advisory Board since it started in 2001.

“The assumption was that Black people were … using drugs, and selling drugs,” said Chappell.  “So with that assumption, they over-policed the Black community. Using that pretext to stop them, and then wrote a ticket for anything.” 

An outside perspective on racial profiling at the WPD

The Jensen Hughes report on the strengths and weaknesses of the Wichita Police Department was instigated by the city manager’s office. The 123-page document features results from a survey of nearly 530 WPD officers and professional staff. A portion of the survey addressed racial profiling.  

“Overall, 65.5% of respondents indicated they never see this type of behavior within the organization,” the report says. 

But almost one in 10 officers say they “sometimes or regularly see this type of behavior within the organization.” One in four say they do see it but rarely, according to the report. 

The report goes on to describe how some of the feelings surveyed indicate a potential for ethnocentrism, the belief that your culture is superior to another. Fourteen percent of officers surveyed said their culture should be used as a role model for other cultural groups. 

Ultimately the report concludes that racial bias “exists at a frequency that needs to be addressed but is not as ubiquitous as other problematic attitudes and behaviors described throughout this report.”

Options for those who can’t pay traffic ticket fines in Wichita

Wichitans who can’t afford to pay fines have options to avoid jail, according to a spokesperson for the city of Wichita.

“If they cannot pay a citation, residents have a variety of options,” said Megan Lovely, communications manager for Wichita. “One is to call the clerks and get put on a payment plan. If residents don’t pay within the 14-day window, set up [a] court [date], or apply for a payment plan, a letter is sent advising them that they are in danger of a warrant being put out.” 

Thirty-five days after this letter, the driver’s license will be suspended. 

“Residents who have had their licenses suspended may also appeal to the state for a one-year hardship license, which will allow them to drive and make arrangements to pay the fees incurred. 

“Residents may also apply for fee forgiveness due to a manifest hardship. It’s also worth noting that judges typically approve appeals for fee forgiveness at a 95% rate,” Lovely said. 

Chappell says the city does not actively make people aware of these options.

Kansas Legal Services has a webpage with commonly asked questions and answers about licenses and driving laws that can help navigate the system. 

The Racial Profiling Advisory Board of Wichita also has a webpage that provides the forms that allow someone with a suspended license to apply for a restricted license and to declare manifest hardship. People with revoked licenses are not eligible. With a restricted license, someone may drive to and from work and school, drug or alcohol counseling, or visits to a health care provider or during a medical emergency.

The Wichita Police Department also occasionally hosts “Second Chance Thursdays” to help people get licenses reinstated and drop their warrants. 

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Trace Salzbrenner is a community journalist for The Wichita Beacon. Follow him on Twitter @RealTraceAlan.