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The Case Against Jaywalking Laws

They're enforced disproportionately against black Americans, sometimes with fatal results.

Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

It was four o’clock in the morning in Asheville, North Carolina, when a 33-year-old black man named Johnnie Jermaine Rush jaywalked for the fourth time. The streets were quiet, but for a police cruiser carrying two frustrated officers. “He just did it again,” one of them can be heard telling his partner in body cam footage recently released by The Citizen-Times. “And again. He’s not learning, right after you just told him. He’s going to be so annoyed with you.”

When the officers pulled over and confronted Rush again, he sound exasperated indeed. “All I’m trying to do is go home, man,” he said.

“You just committed four crimes in a row,” officer Verino Ruggiero replied. “Just because you don’t agree it’s a crime doesn’t mean it’s not a crime.”

“You’ve got nothing better to do than mess with me as I’m trying to get home? I’m tired, man. I just got off of work.”

Ruggiero told Rush he could either arrest him or write him a ticket. “It doesn’t matter to me, man” Rush said. “Just do what you’ve got to do besides keep harassing me.” When they asked Rush to put his hands behind his back, he moved away from them and then started jogging.

During a brief chase, Hickman told Rush “you’re going to get fucked up hardcore.” Rush was then tasered and taken to the ground. At least one of the officers appears to put his body weight on Rush as they tried to pull his hands behind his back for handcuffs. “I can’t breathe,” Rush said, while Hickman punched him in the head multiple times.

The footage, taken last August, became public in February. Hickman resigned from the force, while Asheville Police Department Chief Tammy Hooper offered to do the same. Hickman was charged on Friday with two counts of assault.

Rush’s arrest highlights the problem with jaywalking laws, which are enforced disproportionately against black Americans, and bolsters the case for reforming or eliminating them entirely.

Jaywalking is a trivial crime, one that virtually every person has committed multiple times in their life. This makes it susceptible to arbitrary enforcement. Sacramento’s black residents are five times more likely to receive a jaywalking citation than their non-black neighbors. Seattle police handed out 28 percent of jaywalking citations from 2010 to 2016 to black pedestrians, who only make up 7 percent of the city’s population.

Other types of pedestrian traffic violations also tend to be enforced more heavily against black residents. An investigation last year by ProPublica and the Florida Times-Union found egregious disparities in pedestrian citations in Jacksonville:

Blacks ... were nearly three times as likely as whites to be ticketed for a pedestrian violation. Residents of the city’s three poorest zip codes were about six times as likely to receive a pedestrian citation as those living in the city’s other, more affluent 34 zip codes.

Tickets for some of the less familiar statutes were issued even more disproportionately to blacks. Seventy-eight percent of all tickets written for “walking in the roadway where sidewalks are provided” were issued to blacks. As well, blacks accounted for 68 percent of all recipients of tickets issued for “failing to cross the road at a right angle or shortest route.”

Perhaps the most infamous jaywalking stop was that of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Though media coverage soon focused on his alleged role in a convenience store robbery, Ferguson police said that Officer Darren Wilson initially stopped him for jaywalking. Wilson shot Brown to death during the 2014 encounter, sparking days of riots in the St. Louis suburb and propelling the Black Lives Matter movement, which began in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin, onto the national stage. The following year, a Justice Department report into Ferguson’s police practices found systemic abuses against the local black community. Federal investigators discovered that Ferguson police issued 95 percent of jaywalking citations to black residents, who only make up two-thirds of the community.

Rush’s case also mirrors that of Nandi Cain Jr., a black man in Sacramento, California who was also stopped by a white police officer police when walking home during sunny day last April. Dash cam footage of the encounter shows that Cain crossed the street while two cars speeded by. After he reached the other side of the crosswalk without difficulty, officer Anthony Figueroa pulled over next to him and got out of the car.

The footage appears to show Figueroa’s hands near his holster when he approached Cain. “You were jaywalking back here,” Figueroa said. As Cain moved away and insisted he looked both ways first, the officer threatened to take him to the ground. “I just got off work,” Cain told him. “You’re just trying to pull me over for nothing.” Figueroa grabbed Cain and soon was sitting on top of him, punching him times in the head. As another police car arrived, Figueroa told Cain, “Why could you not just comply?”

The footage’s release prompted a small Black Lives Matter demonstration in front of the department’s headquarters. Cain told a local news outlet that he thought he was going to be “the next Trayvon Martin.” Police officials described the video as “disturbing” and said they would open a criminal investigation. The Sacramento County district attorney’s office eventually concluded that there wasn’t sufficient evidence to charge Figueroa, who returned to duty in November.

Racial disparities in American policing aren’t new, of course. Between 2004 and 2012, the New York City Police Department ramped up its usage of “stop and frisk” searches. Officers performed more than 4.4 million of them against residents with minimal grounds for suspicion during that eight-year period. Almost nine in ten of the stops resulted in no arrests, meaning hundreds of thousands of people were detained for no reason. Black and Hispanic New Yorkers account for half of the city’s population but were the subjects of 83 percent of searches. (The NYPD agreed last year to limit “stop and frisk” last year as part of a legal settlement.)

What sets jaywalking apart is that it never should have been against the law in the first place. City streets were meant for foot traffic and horses from ancient times until the early twentieth century. As a result, early automobiles found themselves alongside all sorts of pedestrians. To make way for cars, literally and figuratively, wealthy drivers and the U.S. auto industry set out to stigmatize lower-class pedestrians who crossed streets at will. Those who wouldn’t step aside for vehicles became known as “jay walkers,” The Washington Post reported:

A jay at the time was an unsophisticated person; “jay,” the Oxford English Dictionary suggests, was a common insult in American slang.  To jaywalk was to cross the street in an unsafe way, the way a country dweller unfamiliar with city traffic might. The term was also controversial. The New York Times, in 1915, called the term “jaywalker” shameful and “highly shocking.” It rang of a pejorative class term, one used by wealthier drivers to refer to the carless.

Eliminating jaywalking and similar offenses won’t lead to anarchy on American roads. It’s not illegal in countries like the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, for example, and both countries enjoy markedly fewer traffic fatalities than the United States. It’s not clear how much money flows into state coffers from pedestrian tickets, but it’s likely far less than traffic tickets for drivers. Any lost income may also be offset by the savings for police departments. Fewer unnecessary contacts between officers and citizens means fewer costly lawsuits and officer dismissals.

The greatest benefit, however, would be to over-policed communities who bear the brunt of jaywalking enforcement. There’s no convincing reason that Johnnie Jermaine Rush, Nandi Cain Jr., and Michael Brown should have been stopped by police in the first place. No one should be beaten, or lose their life, just for crossing the road.