New research by Minneapolis police shows that about one-third of criminal violations over the past five years were for the relatively minor infractions of driving without auto insurance or a valid driver's license.
The problem bogs down police resources and can create deeper problems for residents who suddenly find themselves enmeshed in the criminal justice system, where fines, penalties and punishments can escalate quickly.
"This is systemic," Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau said. "People are getting into the system because they don't have a driver's license."
For those who are poor, a minor driving infraction can bring years of trouble.
"They either fail to appear or they don't pay their fine because they don't have money," Harteau said. "Why? Because they can't get to their job because they don't have a driver's license. A warrant gets issued and now that just stacks up. You can't dig yourself out."
Harteau and police officials analyzed the arrest statistics after civil rights advocates argued that data showed that racially biased policing had created disparities in the way low-level offenses were enforced. Lately, the City Council has looked at repealing lurking and spitting ordinances, which civil rights advocates said overwhelming target minorities.
Police found that lurking charges, for instance, make up less than one half of 1 percent of all criminal violations.
From 2010 to 2014, police arrested 45,147 individuals once and 8,716 people were arrested twice for a range of offenses, including driver's license infractions. Fifteen people were arrested more than 51 times in the past five years.
Harteau said the license arrests were "startling" and presented a "significant public safety issue."
Regina Turner, 19, used her car to pick up items she needed for her 2-year-old daughter and to get to her full-time job. She did all this without a license or auto insurance.
"I know that I have to be there and it's my source of income. … I have to go to work," the single mother said Wednesday.
But earlier in May, she hit a parked car not far from her home and was cited for not having a valid driver's license or proof of car insurance. Now, she's working toward getting her license and relying on her father for rides. "It is kind of difficult to depend on him," she said.
Julius Curry, 37, was caught driving without a license. According to a police report, on May 13 officers stopped Curry after spotting him driving "at an unreasonable speed."
Curry said he needs someone to help him drive to a testing facility to get his license, which he is studying to pass.
Despite his recent citation, Curry said that he's not a criminal. "Just because I don't have a license doesn't mean I'm a bad person," he said.
According to the state's Department of Public Safety, 23,312 people had canceled driver's licenses, 22,656 had revoked driver's licenses and 15,771 had suspended driver's licenses by the end of 2014.
Out of 360,619 stops last year, State Patrol troopers gave out 5,530 tickets to people with no driver's license, 15,369 for suspended, revoked or canceled licenses and 546 tickets for licenses that were canceled because of public safety concerns, said Lt. Tiffani Nielson, State Patrol spokeswoman.
Police are always on the lookout.
As rain trickled down one afternoon in Uptown, Lt. Todd Gross turned on his squad's flashing lights and pulled over a sport-utility vehicle without its headlights on. After checking for a valid driver's license, Gross let the woman go with just a warning.
In that area, it is not uncommon for officers to see a multitude of violations including for illegal turns, distracted driving and speeding, said Gross, who is the patrol supervisor of Minneapolis police's 5th precinct. Sometimes, violators are caught without valid licenses, he said.
Harteau said part of the problem was that there are no behind-the-wheel driver testing facilities in Minneapolis, which means residents face the extra burden of having to travel to the suburbs to take their tests.
A large majority of the offenders who were stopped for license violations live in some of the city's poorest areas with a large concentration of minorities, Harteau said. She said that officers don't have any discretion on when to give driving citations or arrests.
Teresa Nelson, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota, said that when someone is only cited for not having a valid license, it makes her wonder why the stop was initiated in the first place.
"I don't discount the safety concerns about people driving without valid licenses, but if the vehicle appears to be driven safely, I wonder about whether or not this is a good use of our resources," Nelson said.
Harteau calls this a "vicious cycle" that needs to be addressed.
The chief said she would be open discussions to find a solution, such as some sort of driver diversion program that could offer safe driving classes as an alternative to traffic tickets and fines.
Nelson agreed that there is an issue with how license violators are handled.
"I think it can spiral out and really cause a lot of problems for an individual who is barely scraping by as it is," Nelson said.