Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (2014–…): Season 2, Episode 7 - Municipal Violations - full transcript

If you have money, committing a municipal violation may pose you a minor inconvenience. If you don't, it can ruin your life.

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Welcome to Last Week Tonight !
I'm John Oliver.

Time for a quick recap of the week.

And we begin in Israel.
Drama-wise, the opposite of Canada.

Israel had their election this week,
and despite being behind in the polls,

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's
Likud party won resoundingly

which some credit to Netanyahu's last
minute swing to the even farther right.

The Prime Minister Netanyahu

said there's not going to be
a Palestine or a two-state solution.

So no two-state solution then.
But let's not jump to conclusions.

Maybe he only said that because he's
planning on a three-state solution:

Israel, Palestine,
and bonus Palestine.

We don't know for sure.
Let's accept that in part

due to that promise
Netanyahu looks like he's here to stay.

The problem he has is how
is he going to convince the US

that he's a credible partner
for negotiation,

given that he said he would not allow
a two-state solution !

I don't want a one-state solution.
I want a sustainable,

peaceful two-state solution
but circumstances have to change.

That's pretty impressive.

Because that is a Michael Jackson
level of walking backwards.

He demonstrated
the verbal gymnastics

of a guy caught
being too honest on his first date.

"I don't want kids.
You want kids ? I love kids,

and in the right circumstances,
I could see myself having them.

I never said I don't want kids."

This is why what Netanyahu
just said is so amazing:

he was trying to escape
something that he'd said

that had left him
almost no wiggle room.

Asked if that meant
there would be no Palestinian state

if he were to continue
as Prime Minister,

Netanyahu responded, correct.

How do you get out of that ?
It's impossible. I've gotta say:

if he somehow escapes this, he should
go on the road as Netanyahoudini.

Words cannot hold him.
Let's move on to Starbucks,

the acoustic Alanis Morrisette album
with a coffeehouse wrapped around it.

CEO Howard Schultz unveiled
a bold new initiative to his employees.

What if we were to write race together
on every Starbucks cup ?

And that facilitated a conversation
between you and our customers ?

If a customer asks you what this is,
try and engage in a discussion

that we have problems in this country
with regard to race, racial inequality.

I think it's pretty clear: no one
has said no to this guy in 25 years.

A conversation about race
is clearly important,

but there's a time and a place.

It is not the length of time it takes
to whip up a tiramisu Frappuccino.

Let's give Howard Schultz credit:
he did start a conversation

across the racial divide, with
a white billionaire pitching an idea,

and African-American customers
telling him how stupid it was.

Not sure what Starbucks was thinking.
I don't have time to explain

400 years of oppression to you
and still make my train.

I'm not sure that systemic change is
gonna happen by talking to the barista.

He's right. Best-case scenario,

you get a heartfelt conversation
about race going,

only to have it justifiably
interrupted by someone screaming,

"Can we solve racism later ?
I'm late for fucking work."

And the problems didn't stop there,
because Starbucks wound up

having some conversations about race
that it probably hadn't anticipated.

Many people put up a link
to the company's website

actually featuring pictures of mostly
white, mostly male leadership.

The race together campaign
is taking a lot of flack online

with many people bashing
the company on Twitter

including some questioning
why Starbucks promotional photos

only included white hands.

How's that conversation on race going,
Starbucks ? Lot of fun, right ?

What if this could be every morning ?

But it was what happened
as a result of that backlash

that shows you how unprepared
Starbucks was for this conversation.

Starbucks' own
VP of Communications

temporarily deleting his Twitter
account under an avalanche of criticism

saying he felt personally
attacked in a cascade of negativity.

End of conversation, I guess everyone.
Good talk, good talk, people.

Nice try ! Now you can go back to doing
what you do best: burning coffee

and glaring at us for using your
bathrooms without buying anything.

Just stay in your lane.
And finally, tonight: New Hampshire.

Where live free or die
is a legitimately difficult choice.

It is always held a special place
in American politics,

and earlier this month,
some local fourth graders

visited the state capitol
to learn how government worked.

A group of fourth graders
including nine-year-old Maia Roka

crafted a bill to make the red-tailed
hawk the official state raptor.

Mr. Cutting's fourth grade class

arrived to watch their house bill
come up for a vote,

greeted by enthusiastic applause.

That's fantastic.
What a great opportunity for the kids

to engage in the political process
and be inspired.

I can presume that their state raptor
bill sailed right through.

We have a state bird but now
do we need a state raptor ?

Isn't that a bird ?
Isn't that an animal ?

So are we gonna have
flightless birds, water fowl,

pet birds, garden birds,
wild birds...

How many bills do we need ?

If we keep bringing more of these bills
and bills and bills forward,

I feel we shouldn't have in front of us
we'll be picking a state hot dog next.

What is wrong with you ?
A, this doesn't matter.

B, the children are in the room.
And C, this doesn't matter.

Just vote yes and make them happy.
And sadly, the story didn't end there.

State representative Warren Groen
also decided it was appropriate

to use the red-tailed hawk to make
a completely unnecessary point.

It's known for it's strong and sharp
talons with which it grasps its prey.

But it grasp them with its talons
and then uses its razor-sharp beak

to rip its victim to shreds and to
basically tear it apart limb by limb.

The shame
about making this a state bird is,

it would serve as a much better mascot
for Planned Parenthood.

What the fuck are you talking about ?
For a start,

everyone knows Planned Parenthood
already has a mascot !

It's plan bee,
the Planned Parenthood bee !

"Did you hear the buzz
on spermicidal lubricant ?

No. Thank you plan bee.
You're the best."

This wasn't a few cranks.

The legislature defeated
the children's bill, 133 to 160.

And then celebrated by looking up
at the kids and saying,

"Nice try, idiots. Santa's not real
and Dora the Explorer can't hear you."

This must have been devastating
for the kids.

But if their stupid state government
will not honor the red-tailed hawk,

then we will.

And that is why I am proud
to announce the red-tailed hawk

is the new official raptor
of Last Week Tonight.

Here it is ! A real live predatory hawk
in a television studio !

To show how wrong
New Hampshire legislators were

to deny those fourth graders
from Lincoln Akerman school

their red tailed hawk request,
we've prepared this.

Red tailed hawks.

The official raptors
of Last Week Tonight.

Why ? Because they effing rock !
They'll take out a rattlesnake !

Chill on a basketball hoop.
Then they'll feed their babies.

But wait, that's not all.

They'll grab a pheasant
while doing a mid-air 360 !

- Let's watch that again.
- Rewind.

Awesome !
But don't just take it from us.

Here's some red tailed hawk facts
from a guy in the nineties.

Red tail hawks,

probably the most common
bird of prey in the US.

This guy's incredible.
Give me more hawk facts man.

Their grasping strength

is about 200 pounds
per square inch of pressure.

Badass ! One more hawk fact.

The stooping speed for the red tail
is about 100 to 120 miles an hour.

That's enough hawk facts.

All this is why the red tailed hawk
is Last Week Tonight's official raptor.

Raptor scream !

Congratulations, fourth graders !
Red hawks are awesome !

And now, this !

People on TV honoring St. Patrick's Day
in the most offensive way possible.

Top of the morning to ya there !

- Top of the morning to ya.
- Top of the morning to ya, kiddies.

Top of the morning to ya.

Happy St. Patrick's Day.

Happy St. Patrick's Day,
everybody !

- Wee bit of a parade.
- Wee bit.

They have
their beautiful outfits ready.

I can't do an Irish accent.
Hello lassie !

What are you talking about Brad ?

- You sound Jamaican.
- I sound Jamaican ?

Moving on: our main story tonight
concerns municipal violations.

They're the small,
everyday ways of breaking the law,

like speeding, or trespassing,
or failing to vaccinate your ferret.

That is against the law
so sorry, ferret Jenny McCarthy.

You're just gonna have
to get it done.

We have all committed
municipal violations.

But if you've never
gotten a ticket for one,

all I can say is congratulations
on not getting caught.

Now for most people,
tickets are just annoying.

We grin and bear them or,
as in this case of this young woman,

throw a passive-aggressive tantrum.

- Citations for...
- My headlights weren't on.

Yes, you're right. Citations
for not having your headlights on.

- Let me explain it, okay ?
- I need to pay it, I'm late.

You know that woman
behaves that way in every situation.

"I totally get it. It's a funeral.

Mindy was a person,
now she's gonna be eaten by worms.

Just put her in the ground
so I can get to soul cycle. I'm late !"

She's probably not thought
about that ticket until now.

She's getting a lot of text messages
from friends saying,

"Amber ! You're totally on HBO
right now shouting at a cop !"

But if you don't have enough money
to pay a fine immediately,

tickets can wreck your life.

Let me introduce you
to Harriet Cleveland.

She had some low-level traffic tickets.
Couldn't pay them straight away.

She accumulated other fees and tickets,
which she was unable to pay off.

And then, one morning,
this happened !

I had my grandbaby with me,
I was sitting up giving him breakfast,

and I heard a knock on the door
and I seen the police officer.

In the back of my mind,
it wasn't for me

because I didn't figure
they'd come get you for tickets.

I was escorted to jail.

If you're thinking:
how is it possible

for a grandmother
to go to jail for traffic tickets ?

That is what this story is about.

Because most tickets
come with a fine.

If you've lived paycheck to paycheck,
you know that can be difficult.

In DeKalb County, Alabama,
a speeding ticket is $255.50.

If you earn minimum wage there,
$7.25 an hour,

it would take you more than
35 hours of work to pay that off.

Which seems harsh.
Because the only justifiable way

you should lose an entire week
of your life due to speeding

is if you hit 88 miles an hour
and go back in time.

And sometimes, governments
will take a reasonable base fine

and turn it into that something
people may not be able to afford,

as they've done in California.

The actual fine
for running a stop sign is $35

but by the time the state tacks
on 10 different surcharges and fees,

the amount you owes jumps to $238.

To put that in perspective,
I went on e-bay this morning,

and $238 is the current asking
price for this glorious unicorn

with wheels on its hooves.

if you live in California
and run a stop sign,

you can either pay your ticket
or own a unicorn.

Courts know that not everyone
can pay fines straight away.

Which is why
some allow a payment plan.

Unfortunately, that can turn out
to be even more expensive.

In Illinois, the state adds on 30%
if you fall behind in your payments.

In New Orleans it costs you a 100 bucks
just to sign up for a payment plan.

Yes. Your payment plan
begins with a payment plan payment.

It's like your probation officer
is MC Escher.

"Go pay the clerk at the top of that
endless staircase. You'll be fine."

And this situation is widespread.

At least 44 states charge people
a fee to be on probation.

And many municipalities
use these charges

as a way to fund local services
without raising taxes.

I that rings a bell, it may be
because of Ferguson, Missouri.

When the department of justice report
uncovered institutional racism,

it found one of the ways was
in the use of fines as a cash machine.

The report says officers competed to
see who could write the most tickets.

It concludes police officer's promotions
depended on citation revenue.

There's the story of a police commander
who one day bragged to his superiors

about seeing a steady stream of people,
10 to 15 deep,

waiting in line for hours
to pay traffic fines.

He wrote, the court clerk girls
have been swamped.

And the city manager responded,
great work.

Setting aside the fact that he used
the phrase, court clerk girls,

that situation is ridiculous.

The only people
who should be that excited

about people waiting in line
to hand over way too much money

are Apple executives.

If you couldn't pay immediately
in Ferguson, they could bleed you dry.

Listen to just one example.

In 2007, one woman

received two parking tickets
that together totaled $152.

To date, she has paid $550 in fines
and fees to the city of Ferguson.

Yet today, she still inexplicably
owes Ferguson $541.

That's more than $1,000
for $150 in tickets.

Even people stocking hotel minibars
are thinking it seems a little high.

Just settle down.

Using fines to fund government
was not happening just in Ferguson,

as a recent study
of the surrounding area showed.

According to court records,
8 towns rely on court fines and fees

for more than 30 percent
of their revenue.

Calverton Park
is at the 66 percent level.

66 percent ! When that much
of your budget comes from fines,

you're actually rooting
for people to break the law.

"We're gonna have to close the library
unless someone urinates up that wall

and the rest of us
start driving like maniacs.

So put the pedal to the metal.
Let's do it for the kids !"

In these situations,
the poor get hurt the worst.

In many states,
failure to pay a fine on time

can even result in having
your driving license suspended.

In fact,
this is such a common practice,

in Orange County, Florida,
they made an event out of it.

The Grinch himself
showed up in Orange County

with a bag full of licenses
belonging to drivers

who've been more naughty
than nice.

If you're gonna drive in a manner
that affects somebody else's safety,

that we're gonna impact your life.

You do know the Grinch
is the bad guy in that story, right ?

It's not about a brave green
crime-fighter who saves Whoville

from a guy driving his sleigh
ten miles over the speed limit.

Grinch's argument that this was about
affecting people's lives and safety

was somewhat undercut
a little later in the same report.

Many of these licenses
were suspended

because the drivers
didn't pay a traffic ticket.

Those licenses weren't all taken
from reckless drivers.

The odds are, they were mostly
taken from insolvent drivers.

In 2012 in Florida, a staggering 88%
of all license suspensions

were due to "failure to comply
with summons or fines."

It also leaves only 12% for Florida's
other most common violations:

accidentally taking your golf cart
on the freeway,

feeding meth to an alligator,
feeding an alligator to a meth dealer,

and being an alligator meth dealer.

Florida. The problem is,

if you do lose your license,
it can affect everything.

Most Americans drive to work. If you
can't do that, you've got a problem.

In New Jersey, a survey of low-income
drivers who'd had license suspended

found that 64 percent
had lost their jobs as a result.

Which doesn't help anyone.
You need them to pay their fine,

but you're taking away
their means of paying it.

That's the most self-defeating idea
since gay conversion camp.

"Don't worry, boys, we'll fix you.
It's swimming in the morning,

wrestling in the afternoon,
and in the evening,

general horseplay in the woods.
You'll be fine, chaps."

Let's recap: if you get a ticket
and you can't pay it,

you may get additional fines, lose
your license, and eventually your job.

If you're thinking, "is any way this
situation can be made even worse ?"

Relax: there is.

Now private companies have managed
somehow to insert themselves.

Private probation companies
across the US

supervise people who are on probation
for minor offenses,

collect all of their outstanding debts
and fines and court costs,

and they won't charge the courts
a penny.

Instead, probationers pay them fees
in exchange for their services.

Yes, Judicial Correction Services
and Sentinel Offender Services

offer to supervise probationers
and collect fees at no cost.

They even market themselves
with ads like this one, for JCS,

trumpeting the millions of dollars
they collected for municipalities.

The problem is,
that money is a lot like Wendy's chili:

it's fantastic to have, as long as you
don't think about where it came from.

Because it can come
from people like Hali Woods.

August of last year,
I got a no seat-belt ticket.

How much was that ticket for ?

The ticket was $25 and court
costs was $16 which was $41.

I didn't have the money to pay
so they put me on JCS probation.

Hali was handed over to JCS probation
because she couldn't pay a $41 ticket.

They put her on a payment plan
with a monthly fee of $35.

The problem for Hali was,
any money she sent in

was applied to her JCS fees first
and not her $41 ticket.

Which put her
in a hamster wheel of hell.

This one right here shows
I paid another $10.

It shows that the fees went down
but the fine is still $41.

I've told the judge that I have
the money to pay for the ticket,

I couldn't afford the rest of the fees,
he said that that wasn't his problem,

that I could just put
that $41 towards the probation.

And then I got another
one that shows I paid $41 even

and the fine has not been touched not
one time in all the money I've paid.

So if you have money, the state's
slogan is "click it or ticket,"

but it should really be "buckle
yourself or go fuckle yourself."

In case you are somehow
not angry enough by now,

remember how the system
works if you do have money !

- My headlights weren't on.
- Let me explain it, okay ?

I totally get it. It's a ticket,
I need to pay it, I'm late.

You didn't think it was possible
to dislike her any more, did you ?

"Amber, you're back on TV,
this is sick."

It's not that these private probation
companies can take your money.

Their recommendations to the court
can ultimately send you to jail.

Take the case of Tom Barrett. He's
a veteran who stole a $2 can of beer,

which he knows
he should not have done.

When he couldn't pay his fine, he was
referred to Sentinel Offender Services.

In addition to all their other fees,
they gave a court-ordered leg monitor,

for which they charged him
$360 a month, $12 a day.

To keep up on his payments,
he had to start selling his own plasma.

And where do you think
this story ended ?

I ended up having to walk everywhere
because I couldn't afford bus fare.

I went hungry
because I couldn't afford food.

It was $12 a day and there was
no way I could make $12

so I was always falling behind.

I ended up getting locked up 3 times
over stealing this can of beer.

Locked up three times
over stealing one can of beer.

That is not justice, that's the plot
of a southern Les Miserables.

"I dreamed a dream
I stole a Coors

and then some assholes
put me in jaaaail..."

The crazy thing is,
the most insane part of this is,

the main reason municipalities
sign contracts with these companies

is to save money.

This whole system doesn't even
make sense on a financial basis.

As Tom Barrett's lawyer explains,
locking him up was expensive.

I know the jailing costs $50 a day
and I think he was probably in jail

for at least 60 days or 70 days
so probably over $3,500.

Think about that: a $2 can of beer
caused a $270 fine,

which the city spent
over $3,000 to try and enforce.

It's like they say: "you gotta
spend money to make money

to be able to afford
to jail people to lose money."

This brings us right back to where
we began, with Harriet Cleveland,

because her story touches on pretty
much everything we've seen so far.

How did Harriet wind up in jail ?
She struggled to pay traffic tickets,

had her license suspended, had
to keep driving or she'd lose her job,

was then caught driving
without a license, ticketed again,

and then had her fines handed
over to the good people at JCS.

I'll let her pick up
the story up from there.

I lost a whole lot of money paying
to them that didn't go onto my fine.

I lost my car trying to pay them.

I did a title loan on my car
and lost that.

And trying to pay my utility bills,
they getting shut off here and there.

I wanted to pay my fine
but I couldn't afford it.

It hurt real hard
and I didn't even have that

but I had to take something until
it got to the point I just got tired.

I paid them $2,000 one time,
and that was in February.

In March I didn't have them
anything else to give them.

Southern Poverty Law Center managed
to get her out of jail after 10 days,

arguing that she'd been sent to what
was effectively a debtor's prison,

something that was supposed to have
been outlawed in America in the 1830s.

Whether through private probation
or just the states,

many people are caught in the same
cycle as all the people that we've seen.

No one is saying that people who break
the law should not be punished.

This isn't about being soft
on crime.

Listen to Tom Barrett's self-proclaimed
conservative Republican lawyer !

If someone violates the rules
of society they need to be punished.

The punishment needs to have some,
if it's gonna be based on a fine,

it has to be based
on the person's ability to pay.

If they don't have the ability to pay,
they can have community service.

Not only should municipalities not
be balancing their books

on the backs of some
of their most vulnerable citizens,

but we cannot have a system
where committing a minor violation

can end up putting you in, and I'm
going to use a legal term of art here,

the fuck barrel.

We can't have that. It might be time
that we all stood up and said so.

- I'm a hostess.
- I'm a barista.

- I'm a cashier.
- I'm a utility inspector.

- I am a hair stylist.
- I'm a janitor and cook.

We're all Americans
and we have the right

to life, liberty
and the pursuit of happiness.

But sometimes in that pursuit,
we also need the right

to fuck up once in a while, without
it completely destroying our lives.

- I've jaywalked before.
- I have gotten a speeding ticket.

I've publicly urinated
maybe once or twice.

Public drunkenness.

Of course your boy
been drunk in public !

- Got ticket for spitting on the floor.
- I got a ticket for petty loitering.

I got arrested for smoking weed
at a concert

and then I met GZA and he gave me
a VIP pass back into the concert.

- So thank you GZA.
- Yes, thank you GZA.

When we've truly made a mistake,
we're all willing to pay a price.

But that price should be
reasonable and private companies

should not be profiting
from someone's inability to pay.

One time,
I put a popsicle in my friend's ass.

That doesn't apply to the subject
about here but thanks for sharing ?

The point is,
this is everyone's problem.

Young, old, black, white,
it's not about race.

- It's definitely about race.
- Race definitely plays into it.

I highly doubt
that loitering thing I got,

would've happened to me if I was,
forget about me being white,

if I was like
a couple of shades lighter.

It's absolutely about race as well
but it's also about basic fairness.

And it has to stop.

People cannot end up in a fuck barrel
for the little stuff we all do.

So it's time for us all
to come together and say as one...

Shut down the fuck barrel.

Shut down the fuck barrel.

- I said, shut down the fuck barrel.
- Please !

Yes, shut down the fuck barrel.
Shut it down.

That's our show. Thank you so much !
We'll see you in two weeks !