Report Claims Georgia’s Felony Driving Law Encourages Racial Profiling
Mar. 31, 2016 (Mimesis Law) — At a press conference last week, advocates from the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR) called for the repeal of Georgia’s “felony driving law,” which they allege has encouraged racial profiling and has produced disproportionate arrests and penalties in communities of color.
Passed in 2008, SB 350 made it a felony to drive without a license or to drive with a suspended license upon a fourth conviction within a five-year period. The law also mandates that if a person is convicted under this law, “a reasonable effort shall be made to determine the nationality of the person so confined.” Critics allege that the law was enacted to restrict immigration by making everyday life more difficult for undocumented immigrants.
Citing their recent study, GLAHR alleges that this law has had a disproportionate impact on all communities of color in Georgia, with Latinos hit the hardest because undocumented immigrants cannot obtain driver’s licenses in the state. They also contend that the harsh penalties and steep fines (up to $4,000) are trapping otherwise law-abiding minorities in a cycle of debt and jail (and possible deportation) while enriching state coffers.
Critics of the law also argue that, by tacking unlicensed driving and driving with a suspended license into the same class of offense, the law also has negative consequences for the African-American community. “Even though the law was written to specifically target unlicensed immigrants, because of the way that they created this large category for a felony conviction, they also are pulling in a lot of African-Americans,” said Flavia Jiménez, a lawyer at Advancement Project and an author of the report. “That’s the danger of mixing these overly harsh criminal laws with immigration enforcement.”
GLAHR’s study focused on three jurisdictions in Georgia – the City of Roswell and Houston and Fayette counties. According to GLAHR’s findings, Hispanics accounted for 63 percent of the traffic arrests under the SB 350 law in Roswell between June 2011 and June 2015, despite representing only 13.1 percent of the city’s population.
In Fayette County, African-Americans accounted for 65.8 percent of the “felony driving” arrests, while representing 21.4 percent of the population, while Latinos account for 6.9 percent of the population and 17 percent of the arrests. The survey of Houston County revealed that African-American’s accounted for 56 percent of arrests under the law, despite only comprising 28 percent of the population. However, researchers ran into problems when trying to ascertain the number of Hispanics arrested under the law, because the county “does not maintain data on Hispanic drivers.”
The study also cites multiple reports of Roswell and Fayette County police setting up checkpoints outside predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods, which may help account for the large number of Latino driver’s arrested under the felony driving law.
Former Georgia state Sen. John Wiles contends that his bill was simply aimed at keeping unlicensed drivers off the roads, and was not intended to target undocumented immigrants or minority groups.
“I know everyone looks at a bill for disproportionate impact,” Wiles said. “But my bill wasn’t meant to have disproportionate impact. It was to save people’s lives. I just didn’t want to have to go to another funeral and have the widow crying in my arms because her husband was killed by an unlicensed driver.”