Parking While Poor: The Disparate Impact of Municipal Fines During the COVID-19 Pandemic

River Lord*

The city of Minneapolis may be inadvertently spreading COVID-19 through its current vehicle ticketing and towing policies. I contracted COVID-19 shortly after a high-risk, high-exposure visit to the Minneapolis impound lot. Current impound policies may subject low income residents to heightened risks of exposure.

On September 30th, I bought a used car. I parked it on the street outside my apartment building, planning to keep it there until I was able to register it. I was informed by a DMV employee that due to new regulations designed to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, I would need an appointment to register the vehicle. My local DMV was booked for a month in advance. On September 31st, my vehicle was towed by the city of Minneapolis and impounded for expired registration. Heeding the wisdom of the DMV employee, I made the earliest appointment I could find online, about two hours away, to register my new car in my name so that the city would release it to me. 

Service at the impound lot is on a first-come, first-serve basis. The ground is marked to “encourage” social distancing and there is signage indicating masks are required for entry. In order to ensure that you are able to speak to someone, you must wait in the lobby or risk being skipped in line by the many others seeking to collect their vehicles. There is no option but to wait while people walk in and out, many with masks pulled down below their noses and mouths, speaking on the phone and to each other. 

After waiting inside the lobby for about an hour, I paid the lot and tow fee, was handed a separate ticket, and was ushered into an escort van with six other strangers while we were driven around in search of our cars. No mention or recommendation was made of social distancing. 

I voiced concerns about the conditions at the impound lot with various city and state officials, even filing a claim with the city’s risk management and claims department. The response was predictably reserved and apathetic. Nevertheless, I repeated my opposition to the practice of ticketing and towing for expired registration during the pandemic, as well as for the social distancing practices at the impound lot, which led to me to fear that I could have been exposed to COVID-19. A week and a half after my experience at the impound lot, my fears were confirmed when I tested positive for COVID-19.

Those who have access to private parking do not need to worry about the city’s policies. Those who are less fortunate, on the other hand, are being directly targeted. Tow trucks are a near permanent fixture on my block due to the many apartment buildings, limited public parking available, and lower income status of the residents. This trend is not merely anecdotal: The Fines and Fees Justice Center (FFJC) notes the disparate impact of fines and fees policies on racial minorities and lower income individuals, stating that “Black, Latinx, and low-income people – who disproportionately suffer the health and economic impacts of the pandemic – are also most likely to suffer the harms of fines and fees policies.” A recent study in the International Journal for Equity in Health confirmed that Asian, Black, and Latino Americans face higher risks of COVID-19 infection, as do individuals residing in a neighborhood with financial insecurity, low air quality, housing insecurity, or transportation insecurity.

According to the FFJC, the number of Americans “struggling to find work, feed their families, and pay off court debt has increased by 8 million since the pandemic began.” Further, rather than taking measures to relieve some of the socioeconomic stressors, many state and local governments “have chosen to scale up fines and fees policies that trap people in a cycle of poverty and debt, while extracting wealth out of local economies.” Given the disparate impact of fines and fees policies faced by individuals who are already at heightened risk for COVID-19 infection, the city and state should be taking care to reduce that risk, not advance it.

The expansion of the United States’ criminal justice system in the past 40 years brought new funding challenges that were addressed in part by the increase in state fines and fees. In extreme cases, unpaid fines lead to jail time. Human Rights Watch noted that “many courts do not meaningfully consider an individual’s ability to pay when imposing or collecting fines, fees, and surcharges, and some do not consider it at all.” Other nations, by contrast, have long utilized a system based on earnings, though there exist several possible constitutional barriers to implementing a similar structure in the United States. Alec Schierenbeck, The Constitutionality of Income-Based Fines, 85(8) Univ. Chi. L. Rev. 1869, 1874, 1885–1924 (2018).

By the FFJC’s metrics, Minnesota is moderate in the reform measures it has undertaken from the onslaught of the pandemic, deserving a spot in neither the Hall of Fame nor the Hall of Shame. While the state has taken steps to reduce the burden on individuals to generate revenue, much more can be done. The FFJC suggests state and local governments implement alternatives to the imposition of fines as a means of government fundraising, especially in light of the growing financial and health concerns brought on by the pandemic. 

Some policy recommendations from the FFJC include: 1) discharging all outstanding fines, fees, and court debt, 2) waiving or reducing any fines or fees imposed, recognizing people’s precarious financial circumstances, 3) stopping the issuance of parking tickets and municipal code violations that do not impact public safety, and stop booting, towing and impounding vehicles for unpaid fines and fees, and 4) enacting equitable revenues solutions that do not disproportionately impact communities of color and low income communities. 

The winter season brings a spike in towable offenses. The city should quickly adopt the FFJC’s recommendations in order to protect the health and welfare of its citizens.


*J.D. Candidate (2022), University of Minnesota Law School.