Larena Bryant must drive.
To cover the bills on the three-bedroom house she owns. To clothe her three children. To pay for doctor visits, gas and groceries.
For life to keep moving, Bryant can’t afford to stop.
So she’s up at 6:45 a.m. to get herself and the kids ready. By 7:30 a.m., she’s driving to her first job at Border Star Elementary, where she is a preschool before- and after-school program teacher. At 8:30, she’ll leave Border Star for her second job, a midtown hair salon where appointments will keep her busy until 2:30 p.m., when she will drive back to Border Star for after-school programming.
By 6:30 p.m., it’s time to return to the salon, where she’ll likely work until 11 p.m.
It is only then that she’ll retire for the day. Tomorrow — wash, rinse, repeat.
Yet it’s not her eye-popping schedule that worries Bryant. Wrangling two teenagers, a 7-year-old and a 15-hour workday isn’t what makes life “mentally traumatizing.”
It’s the driving. Specifically, it’s the risk Bryant takes every time she gets behind the wheel of her car.
That’s because Bryant has 26 outstanding traffic tickets.
But she’s not necessarily a bad or unsafe driver.
In 2017 alone, Bryant was stopped seven times and cited with 13 traffic tickets by the Kansas City Police Department — five tickets for no insurance, six tickets for driving on a suspended license and two tickets for expired tags.
“Now it’s pay this ticket or pay this light bill,” she says. “It’s pay this ticket or pay this rent. It’s adding another bill on top of what I already have.”
Her ordeal highlights the hardships faced by thousands of drivers in Kansas City — particularly poor African-Americans suffering from a deluge of problems caused by traffic tickets. The tickets pile up, burying already poor residents under a mass of fines and creating a financial pit few are able to pull themselves out of.
The Star analyzed traffic tickets from 2017 issued by the Kansas City Police Department and processed by the Kansas City Municipal Court and found significant racial disparities among those ticketed.
Of the traffic tickets given to Kansas City residents, 60 percent went to African-Americans, who make up 30 percent of the population. Thirty-seven percent of tickets went to whites, who make up 59 percent of the population.
Among Kansas City residents, speeding is overwhelmingly the top traffic offense for all races — except African-Americans. The top traffic ticket charge for African-Americans is “state license plate required,” followed by “no insurance” and then speeding.
The ZIP code 64130 — where Bryant lives — is the most common home ZIP code for Kansas Citians receiving tickets. The area is roughly bordered by 39th Street to the north, near The Paseo to the west, 63rd Street to the south and near I-435 to the east.
That one ZIP code accounted for 10 percent of all home ZIP codes for Kansas City residents issued a traffic ticket and is 91 percent African-American, according to census data.
But it’s not just about race, says Stacy Shaw, founding partner of Stacy Shaw & Associates, a Kansas City law firm specializing in traffic cases.
“Race is the superficial candy coating of the M&M,” she says. “If you want to get down to the good stuff, you’ve got to begin looking at people’s socioeconomic status.”
Since establishing the firm in 2011, Shaw and her team have tried more than 8,000 traffic-related cases. The majority of the cases dealt with violations stemming from failure to pay insurance, licensing or tag fees.
“These are economic-based crimes, they’re not poor driver crimes,” Shaw says.
She decided to have her firm specialize in traffic cases after realizing those cases were “the number one way that people were being exposed to the criminal justice system.” Her firm’s clientele, she says, is mostly from the urban core and usually has never hired an attorney.
Shaw says it’s not unusual to encounter cases where drivers are facing up to 10 years in jail and five-digit attorney fees stemming from “economic-based” traffic infractions.
“We’re talking drivers sometimes younger than 30 years old with 30 cases,” she says.
One of her clients spent more than $100,000 with other firms over a 15-year period on attorneys, bonding and fees.
To remain affordable, Shaw’s firm sets aside up to $200,000 annually in financial aid to help lower-income clients tackle cases.
“If I charged the market rate, attorney fees alone for some of these people would climb as high as $7,000,” she says. “Then I’d be a part of their problem.”
Instead, Shaw would rather put her focus toward solutions on how to solve the city’s traffic ticket problem. She sees a number of possible options. Chief among them: creating economic equity for the city’s poorer drivers.
“You can’t do anything about officers writing tickets,” she says. “That’s a Band-Aid. You can’t tell officers to not enforce the law. You have to look at the harder question of how to achieve economic parity.”
The first step? Changing the way people register their cars. Shaw suggests the state create a sliding scale for car registration fees.
“If you are low income and you have a job, you should be able to have a longer period in which you can pay for tags or register your car,” she says.
Another idea? Improved public transit.
“People have to drive in KC because we have not invested properly in public transportation,” she says.
Once, in a type of social experiment, Shaw asked her firm’s employees to take only public transportation to their downtown office for a week to better understand what unlicensed and uninsured drivers would have to go through if they decided to not risk driving.
“It simply could not be done,” she says.
For one employee who lived in Independence, taking the bus resulted in a three-hour expedition.
Another employee who lived in Kansas City North gave up just a few days into the test, claiming it impossible to get a kid to day care and to work on time without a car.
Other employees mentioned having to walk as many as five blocks to the nearest bus station.
It’s a struggle with which Bryant says she is all too familiar.
“I’ve done public transportation,” she says. “I’ve waited in the cold, walked miles and miles in the snow, sometimes with a stroller.”
Yet with her schedule, she says, if even one bus is 10 minutes late, her day crumbles. “I’m forced to drive,” she says.
‘Averages and opportunity’
There are several possible reasons why African-American residents are ticketed more and for different kinds of infractions.
One reason is geography and the inherent segregation of Kansas City’s neighborhoods.
ZIP code 64130 is predominantly African-American. It is east of Troost, that unmovable barrier that splits Kansas City. And it has a major highway — U.S. 71 — running right through it, which is a hotspot for tickets. Drivers from that ZIP code who use the highway as a connection to the rest of the city may be stopped on the highway more.
But perhaps the biggest factor is the number of police concentrated in that area. That’s because 64130 has a higher crime rate and higher calls for service than many other areas of the city, says Ken Novak, a professor of criminal justice and criminology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
“Officers are deployed differentially in dense, high-call areas of the city, and these areas are more likely to have higher nonwhite driving populations,” Novak said.
“This is a resource issue. The more officers deployed, the greater the likelihood people driving there will be stopped. It’s a law of averages and opportunity.”
Police did not respond to The Star’s request for comments for this article.
There’s also the question of why African-Americans are the only group of Kansas City residents where speeding isn’t the top infraction.
“What is interesting to me is that ‘no insurance’ is not typically a reason for pulling someone over to begin with. No insurance is something that is discovered during the stop,” Novak said.
“What may happen is that the reason for the stop is a moving violation, like speeding. But when officers discover the driver is not insured, then they issue a ticket for the insurance and ignore the speeding. On one hand this is generous in that the officer exercises discretion and doesn’t pile on charges.”
But on the other hand, Novak said, not having insurance is less defensible in court, whereas a defense attorney could more easily contest a speeding ticket.
“The downside is that when looked at in the aggregate, it appears people of color may be stopped for different reasons than majorities, and this raises all sorts of new questions,” he said.
For nearly 20 years, the state of Missouri has collected traffic stop demographic data. It has long shown racial disparities: African-Americans are stopped at a rate 65 percent greater than expected based on their proportion of the driving-age population. And African-Americans and Hispanics are searched at rates above the average for all motorists who were stopped, though they are less likely than whites to be found with contraband.
But there hasn’t been much done to address the problem beyond pointing it out in an annual report from the Missouri Attorney General’s Office, said Sara Baker, legislative and policy director with the ACLU of Missouri.
“We have highly disproportionate statistics that we collect and publicize and then nothing happens,” Baker said. “It’s time to get real about this problem.
“As long as that cycle perpetuates, of the African-American community being over-policed, we’ll continue to see deterioration of that relationship, because people feel harassed rather than served by their police department.”
For Quinton Lucas, a Kansas City City Council member whose district includes parts of 64130, the first step should be for the city to review any ordinances that “criminalize poverty.”
“Society tends to blame police when really it’s up to us to come up with criminal codes,” he said.
Lucas acknowledged that an increased police presence in areas like 64130 could lead to more interactions with police and therefore lead to higher numbers of tickets.
“We need to look at why there are extra interactions,” he said. “Is it because of more traffic issues in the area, and if so, why? Or is it because of some other factor that we might not be as inclined to find acceptable? It’s frankly disappointing. It speaks to perhaps under-enforcement in some parts of the city and aggressive enforcement with African-American in parts of our inner city.”
‘Trying to survive’
Ronald Brenson, 35, says he often looks at his life today in disbelief at how much things have changed for the better in the past few years.
He makes nearly triple the salary he did a decade ago, rents a charming three-bedroom home in Blue Springs where he lives with his wife and their four kids and is preparing to start his own trucking business.
He owes it all, he says, to his job as an 18-wheeler truck driver for U.S. Foods.
Had Brenson not walked into Stacy Shaw’s office four years ago, however, none of this would be possible, he says.
“I couldn’t even get into a car without thinking I was going to jail,” Brenson says.
Moving between homes in the 64130 and 64132 ZIP codes, Brenson had amassed nearly $5,000 in tickets in Kansas City, another $3,000 in Independence and two state warrants by the time he was 25 years old.
Like Bryant, the majority of his infractions had little to do with being a bad driver.
There were tickets for driving on a suspended license and expired tags. Once, Brenson got a ticket for playing his car’s music too loud. Another time, he was ticketed for failing to stop for a full three seconds at a stop sign.
“I was even getting traffic tickets when I wasn’t in traffic,” Brenson says with a laugh. He then points to the instance when he was cited for a “paraphernalia” infraction for having Backwoods cigars on his console while parked in his cousin’s driveway.
“I felt like I was being targeted,” he says. “It was destroying my life.”
Shaw remembers the day Brenson came into her office “practically in tears” out of frustration.
“One thing I remember is he said he wanted a better life for his kids,” she says. “And he wanted to get his license reinstated so he could have access to better opportunity.”
With Shaw’s assistance, Brenson was able to get his license reinstated, erase his debt for a fraction of the cost and, most importantly, keep points off his driving record. That made it possible for him to get his Class A commercial driver’s license two years ago.
“Everything I have now is because of that license,” Brenson says. “But if I didn’t have the help to get those fines taken care of, who knows where I’d be?”
Brenson’s story is an example, Shaw says, of what can happen when low-income drivers have access to the tools necessary to overcome petty traffic tickets, and is an example of why the system needs to change.
“Ronald Brenson is a success story and the type of citizen the city should be proud of,” Shaw says. “Unfortunately, many people’s stories don’t unfold that way.”
More often, ticket struggles persist and metastasize, as they did with Bryant.
Every time she gets behind the wheel, Bryant risks going to jail, getting a ticket for a ticket she already has and adding to her already mounting debt.
“My car is old and rundown. I’m not out here trying to be fancy. I’m trying to survive.”
The daunting situation not only leaves her chronically stressed but makes it almost impossible for her to make headway and create a better life for her and her children.
“These tickets, they’re a web I can’t get out of. … I’m not out here committing crimes,” she says.
“I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m just driving.”