Negotiations continue to settle a lawsuit that claims the city of Jackson’s roadblock program unfairly targets low-income minorities.
The Mississippi Center for Justice, representing four plaintiffs, took the city and Police Chief James Davis to federal court over its aggressively named program, “Ticket Arrest Tow.” At least the city wasn’t hiding its intentions.
Jackson officials say the roadblocks allow police to verify whether drivers have a valid license, auto insurance and registration. It also gives officers a chance to see if the city has an outstanding warrant for a driver’s arrest.
The Mississippi Today website says that between Jan. 4 and March 18 of this year, the roadblocks produced 10 felony arrests and another 198 for misdemeanor charges.
But the Mississippi Alliance for Public Safety, which has been working with the Center for Justice, reports that most of the roadblocks were in south and west Jackson — areas with high minority populations. Alliance members said they spoke with residents who reported negative experiences at the roadblocks.
Another organization, the Poor People’s Campaign, believes the roadblocks have the effect of treating poor people as criminals. The group has set up tents near the roadblock locations to provide information to people who run into trouble there for violations like not having a driver’s license.
It’s a difficult issue. A 2000 U.S. Supreme Court ruling said police can use roadblocks to check for a license, insurance and registration — but not for general crime control.
Jackson officials have defended the lawsuit by denying the roadblocks are unconstitutional. They say police are not targeting Black and low-income neighborhoods, and are not treating drivers stopped by roadblocks as criminal suspects. It also claims the city is immune from being sued because the officers are acting within the boundaries of their job.
Settlement talks have been going on for nearly six months — and this does seem like a case where the two sides can reach an agreement.
One of the plaintiffs, for example, told Mississippi Today that the roadblock locations ought to be rotated, sometimes going to majority-white neighborhoods. He said police who find someone without a license ought to share details on how to renew it, and should let these drivers contact a family member to come get the vehicle instead of having it towed away. These are reasonable demands that, if applied, would make police officers more helpful and less threatening to their critics.
However, the claims that the roadblocks unfairly harm low-income drivers who either can’t afford a license or insurance; or who can’t keep their documents current, are ridiculous.
Life is full of minor nuisances, and going to the driver’s license office every few years is one of them. Insurance can be expensive but it also is the law. To ignore these, or to ignore carrying vehicle registration in your car, is all but asking for misdemeanor charges and fines.
Jack Ryan is the publisher and editor-in-chief of the Enterprise-Journal.