“Driving While Black” Billboard Shines Light on City Ticket Records

By a Michigan NMA Member

Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared as NMA E-Newsletter #602 from July 2020. If you would like to receive the weekly NMA E-Newsletter, join today! 

On July 6, an electronic billboard appeared along I-96 in Redford Township, Michigan, just east of the city limits of Livonia. It warned drivers leaving Detroit, “Driving while black?  Racial profiling just ahead. Welcome to Livonia.”

Livonia is a racially-mixed city of 97,000, covering 36 square miles of 1950s homes just west of Detroit. The sign was crowd-funded by a grass-roots citizens group and attributed to Livonia Citizens Caring About Black Lives. The group requested statistics on police traffic stops.

The city responded by posting data on citations issued to black and white male drivers. A Detroit News article of July 12 contains a link to www.LivoniaPACT.org, which features citation statistics for 2019. The city also billed the citizens’ group $13,000 for its FOIA request.

These are fascinating data, showing how many citations were issued for each kind of traffic violation, giving a rare look into the behavior of a big suburban police force.

The numbers show exactly what kind of behavior will get you a ticket in Livonia, Michigan.

Livonia issued 30,551 citations following traffic stops or crashes in 2019, 24.45 percent to black males, and 30.23 percent to white males (and presumably 45.32 percent to females of all races).

Many of the citations are for bad driving performance and causing crashes. Failure to yield, failure to stop in the assured distance, improper turns, signal violations, and other crash causes generate the expected proportions of tickets. But some statistics invite questions as to whether motorists are being stopped to raise revenue or for undue harassment.

As you might expect, speeding is the most common citation, for 8,730 tickets or 29 percent of the total:

Ticket Reason Number of Citations
Violating the posted speed limit 5,330
Violating basic speed law (“reasonable and proper”) 103

The vast majority of these speeding tickets—5,154 of 5,330—on city streets and county roads were written for one to five mph over the limit. Police seldom stop drivers for such small violations, so these citations represent “roadside breaks” that encourage drivers not to challenge tickets in court. This is a likely indicator of a ticket mill, run for revenue, and not for safety.  Only one driver was cited for driving too slowly.

Another indicator of policing for profit is pleading citations down to nonmoving violations such as “blockading a road:”

Impending traffic 244

Livonia includes nine miles of high-speed, multi-lane freeways. These roads are the primary connections to Detroit Metro Airport and between Detroit and its western suburbs. The statistics call out freeway violations separately:

Limited-access highway spending 3,297

Livonia police wrote almost 10 tickets a day to freeway drivers passing through from out of town. Of these, 2,994 were written for 1 to 5 mph over the limit, although the drivers were probably exceeding the 70-mph limit by more than that—these freeways operate at close to 80 mph. Citing suburban drivers on I‑275 and I‑96 helps Livonia even its racial balance in ticketing: only 17.77 percent of the ticketed freeway drivers were black males vs. 38.28 percent white males.

If all 8,730 speeding tickets end in conviction and a fine, they will yield about $1.1 million for the city in 2019.

Certain violations raise suspicions of “pretextual stops” of drivers singled out by police:

Ticket Reasons Number of Citations
Tinted windows 204
One headlight 324
Broken taillight, or white light to rear 895
Improper lane use 226
Object hanging from the mirror, or obstructed view* 113
Cracked windshield 170
Dirty or obstructed license plate 30
Amber-light violation** 14

* It’s been legal to hang trinkets from your mirror in Michigan for several years.
**Michigan is the only state where drivers must stop for a yellow signal, but few police stop anyone for it.

Registration and insurance violations generate a lot of citations, partially attributable to Michigan’s mandatory-insurance law and the lingering effects of the driver responsibility tax:

Ticket Reasons Number of Citations
Expired or improper plates 1,271
No registration form 1,082
No proof of insurance 1,099
Operating with a suspended or revoked license 1,135

Some dangerous behavior doesn’t generate many citations in Livonia. Its police only managed to ticket one drunk a night in the city’s 36 square miles:

Ticket Reason Number of Citations
Operating while intoxicated or impaired 385
Careless driving, including crashes 138
Texting 101
Tailgating 43
Failure to yield to pedestrians 4

Not every ticket went to drivers; bicyclists received nine citations in Livonia in 2019.

The City of Livonia is to be commended for posting these statistics, even though they aren’t entirely flattering. Every city should post data like these, to let citizens see if enforcement matches traffic-safety problems and locations. Livonia’s mayor has ordered her administration to begin talking with civil-rights groups. More postings are said to be coming on the city’s web site.  The police promise to use data to inform decisions, and citizens will be watching to see if future citations are aimed at safety and not revenue.

Editor’s Note: It is good to hear that Livonia, MI is embracing a higher degree of transparency, although a $13,000 charge to respond to a public records request on traffic ticketing data seems rather steep. To put Livonia’s ticketing past in perspective, check out this August 2012 press release by the NMA, where we analyzed the driver-sourced data reported to The National Speed Trap Exchange to identify the worst speed trap cities above and below populations of 50,000 in the United States and Canada. Spoiler alert: Livonia earned second place in the higher population category. Seven cities in the Detroit area attracted enough attention in our rankings that we singled them out in the same release. Remember, this was a study done eight years ago. We hope that each of the municipalities joins Livonia in shining a brighter light on ticketing policies as a helpful step toward reform.

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