Dominique’s Story: Driving While Black and Poor Buffalo’s Long Standing Budget Deficits Are Pulling the  Poor Deeper into Traffic Debt

Imagine, every time that you choose to drive, you are stopped and ticketed by the Buffalo Police or forced to drive into a traffic checkpoint. To makes matters worse, most of the tickets do not promote public safety but are for minor traffic infractions, such as tinted windows, broken tail lights, loud muffler, or lack of lighting on your license plate. Ultimately, the sum of the tickets leads to a longstanding cycle of punishment and poverty, and you lose your driver’s license. As a driver that lives on the Eastside of Buffalo, this was Dominique’s experience.

Dominique began driving in 2014 at the age of 21, to get to and from work and support his young daughter. Like many young drivers, Dominique was excited to begin his driving journey. However, what should have been a liberating and happy experience, soon turned into a nightmare. 

 Not long after he began driving, Dominique started feeling the impacts of driving while Black and poor in the City of Buffalo. He drove a 2009 Black Impala, and within his first year of driving, Dominique received countless traffic tickets, for minor traffic infractions. Assuming he was a target because of the style of his car, he began driving a Jeep Cherokee. Despite his efforts to mitigate police encounters on the road, Dominique continued to be stopped by the Buffalo police (BPD) when driving. One incident that he remembers vividly is when the police stopped him for having no lights above his license plate. 

“I remember leaving my house to go and pick up my daughter, and as I began to drive, a Buffalo police officer started following me. Soon after, I was stopped and ticketed, not only for the license plate visibility issue but for tinted windows. This was the moment that I began falling deep into debt that I could not afford to pay.” 

Between 2014 and 2018, Dominique was stopped, questioned, and ticketed by the Buffalo police over fifty times. He has experienced over twenty traffic stops, over ten checkpoints, his car has been impounded, and he has served time in Erie County’s Holding Center. Dominique’s repeated encounters with BPD began to pull Dominique deep into debt, and driving became a source of anxiety. 

Between paying for traffic fines, administrative fees, and impound fees on top of his car insurance and car note, driving became too expensive. Unable to afford all of his tickets, in 2016, Dominique lost his driver’s license, but because he still needed to get to work and take his daughter to essential places, like many Americans, he continued to drive. Eventually, driving without a license resulted in more tickets, which cost Dominique his freedom.  In 2017, he ended up serving time in Erie County’s Holding Center, for driving without a license, which was the first and only time that he was incarcerated. Dominique, received so many suspended license tickets, that he was one ticket away from becoming a felon. In 2018, the cost of driving while Black and poor became too much, and Dominique decided to give up driving entirely and initiated a voluntary repossession of his car.  

It has been two years since Dominique had a vehicle, and while he no longer receives tickets, he spends nearly $300 every two weeks, taking the bus, train, and using ride-sharing.      

Now amid the COVID19 crisis, Dominique continues to use public transportation, despite the health risks that it poses because he is an essential worker and needs to access essential services. 

“Right now, I have no other choice but to use public transportation and risk my health because the city relies on the work I do, and more importantly, my daughter relies on the work I do.”  Ultimately, the regressive tax placed on Dominique to drive in Buffalo, cost him more than $3,000, much of which he still owes today. 

 Stories like Dominique’s exposes the long-standing practice of municipalities and police departments criminalizing the activities of low-income people and people of color to generate revenue for the budget. Since 2012, the City of Buffalo has used cash reserves to plug operating deficits, and since 2013, the city has relied on revenue from traffic fines and fees to balance its budgets. These fines and fees act as a regressive tax because they fall disproportionally on people of color and people of low income. Amid the COVID19 crisis, the  City of Buffalo continues to experience a shortfall in their budget. This time, it is a 35-million-dollar deficit. Who will pay the cost of this deficit? History says people like Dominique will. While the city has taken some steps to protect drivers amid the COVID19 crisis, the barriers people face to drive also demand state and local policy reforms that extend beyond the COVID19 pandemic. The City of Buffalo should stop criminalizing poverty and repeal its July 2018 amendment to Chapter 175 of the city code that added 13 new traffic fees under the Buffalo Traffic Violations Agency. At the state level, New York State should pass the driver’s license suspension reform bill to ensure that people, like Dominique, no longer lose their ability to drive because they are too poor to pay. Author: Jalonda Hill / Co Author: Dominique Bowden  #fairfinesnofees  (the use of image of woman holding steering wheel although Dominique is a man is a visual reference that this happens to Black Men and Women )