Is it a crime to be poor?

That’s what Barbara Ehrenreich asks in her latest New York Times op/ed, and the answer is a pretty resounding “yes.” Low-income people — and especially low-income people of color — are routinely targeted by police as communities continue to criminalize actions associated with the poor (sleeping on the street, receiving free food, walking into public housing without ID, etc). It’s a must-read piece.


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10 comments for “Is it a crime to be poor?

  1. Tom Foolery
    August 10, 2009 at 9:19 am

    There’s no doubt that low-income people are hardest hit by expanding criminal statutes, but the truth is that the state’s power to arrest and prosecute people of any socioeconomic status is out of control. Here’s an example of a man who was arrested by a squad of armed federal agents for failing to affix a safety sticker onto a legal chemical batch he sold, was acquitted after spending some time in jail, and then arrested and prosecuted for having left the rest of his chemical stock in a safe and secure storage unit while he was in jail — under federal law, they counted as “abandoned hazardous waste.”

    It’s pretty likely that everybody who reads this blog is in some capacity a federal criminal — all it would take for us to get thrown in the clink is for a federal prosecutor to decide to pursue the matter.

  2. LeftieLeftist
    August 10, 2009 at 9:39 am

    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-4097602514885833865

    An excellent video by a law professor on why you should never talk to the police. The number of laws out there are bewildering and cops can and will try to stick something to you if they stop you for something.

    Back when I was in Ohio I had a cop friend who used to drive his squad car by any group of black men, and then gun the engine. If they were startled, or heaven forbid, ran, he had probable cause to chase them down. He said he was doing them a favor since so many of them were on parole anyway that he was doing good making sure they were meeting the conditions of parole. And he was easily among the nicer cops out there.

  3. Medea
    August 10, 2009 at 9:49 am

    The part of the article that particularly struck me was the revelation that children can be charged with truancy if they’re late for school, meaning they should simply stay home if they want to avoid the police.

  4. Pega
    August 10, 2009 at 10:44 am

    @Medea

    Actually, staying home doesn’t help. At that point, a police officer (or in my case deputy sheriff) will come to your door and demand an interview with the child and parent, and will demand medical documentation if the absences are due to illness.

  5. William
    August 10, 2009 at 11:15 am

    The part of the article that particularly struck me was the revelation that children can be charged with truancy if they’re late for school, meaning they should simply stay home if they want to avoid the police.

    Of course they can. Schools already closely resemble prisons, why not dispatch armed officers to bring escapees back into the fold?

  6. evil_fizz
    August 10, 2009 at 12:03 pm

    When I was in law school, part of one of my internships involved prosecuting traffic offenses. I was only there for the summer, but there are a handful of violations which are basically exclusively used against people of color and others who look questionable in some way to the police, i.e. driving a crappy car in a “good” neighborhood. “Following too close” and “improper lane change” are two obvious examples. The racial profiling aspect of a lot of the things Ehrenreich mentions are also significant, because it’s tied to very white notions of “desireability” and what kinds of people and behaviors are or are not acceptable in public.

  7. Bitter Scribe
    August 10, 2009 at 12:19 pm

    In the words of Kim Hubbard: “It ain’t no crime to be poor, but it might as well be.”

  8. August 10, 2009 at 2:15 pm

    I had a friend who was locked up for 3 days for meeting the description given of a robbery suspect. The description? “Tall”. That’s it. No race, age, hair color, eye color, clothing worn, not even how tall. My friend is 6’8″, which certainly qualifies as “tall”, but the actual suspect was 5’6″.

    He lost his job. And his apartment. He ended up living in my basement for 6 weeks. (It’s very nice. It has its bathroom, and brand new laminate flooring.) All because he can’t afford a lawyer, and PDs are generally worthless. (Sometimes great, but usually not.)

  9. laprofe63
    August 10, 2009 at 11:28 pm

    I’m blown away by the case of the man arrested at a shelter. THAT is what should be criminal!

    What kind of “justice” exactly is the system doing in that instance?

  10. August 11, 2009 at 9:59 pm

    Evil Fizz —

    If you look through the local newspaper’s records of court proceedings, you may see that almost every driving offense charge reported, from DUI to driving with an expired sticker to driving with suspended license is also reported as being charged with “marked lanes violation”

    My take is that *that* gives “probable cause” to pull someone over and do a quick visual inventory of the vehicle, whether the vehicle crossed a lane marker or not.

    And the police don’t even need *that* excuse to run a license plate — they can call an ID check in to the dispatcher just if they are feeling bored — because the vehicle plate number (and owner) are a matter of public record, there is no presumption of privacy, so it is perfectly legal for a police officer to run a plate, determine that the car belongs to someone from a low-income area, and then use something like “marked lanes” to pull over the uppity poor folk.

    (well, legal to run the plate — not legal to use a false charge as a pretext to pull a motorist over)

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