California traffic courts frequently suspend driver’s licenses of those who are unable to pay outsized traffic violations and other citations. The practice has a disproportionately negative impact on poor and minority Californians, costing people their jobs when they can’t drive to work, and sending violators into debt.
A new report by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area takes an in-depth look at the issue in California, and suggests ways to make the system more equitable. (LCCR provides free legal services to—and litigates on behalf of—people of color, low-income residents, and immigrants. The group also introduces and supports legislation that advances equal justice.)
In 2015 California launched a traffic ticket amnesty program that allowed low-income traffic violators to reduce their fines for pre-2013 tickets by 80%. Thanks to the program, which ended in last month, 200,000 people were able to get their driver’s licenses reinstated. Now that the 18-month program is over, Californians who can’t afford sky high traffic fines have no means of regaining their lost licenses.
And it’s not just unpaid traffic tickets that lead to license suspensions. Young people can be blocked from getting their licenses because of unpaid truancy violations. And other violations like littering, loitering, and having a dog off-leash are also heard in traffic court and often results in a suspended driver’s license for those who cannot afford to pay. These are not road safety-related driving violations, yet they have the same ability to take away a person’s ability to drive as a DUI or an accumulation of speeding tickets.
“Taking away the licenses of safe drivers increases the number of people who are forced to choose between compliance with their license suspension and fulfilling personal responsibilities such as getting to work in the morning, taking a sick child to the doctor, or complying with probation or parole requirements,” writes Lea Sakala in a 2014 Prison Policy Initiative report on the issue. “Thus, suspending the licenses of safe drivers makes the roads less safe for everyone by unnecessarily increasing the number of unlicensed—and therefore uninsured—drivers on the roads.”
A 2006 study in New Jersey found that 42% of those surveyed lost their job while their license was suspended. Of those, 45% were unable to find another job. Of those who found new work, 88% reported lower income.
“Californians lose the ability to legally drive—and often their jobs along with it—as punishment for being unable to pay the highest fines in the country,” said Elisa Della-Piana, Legal Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. “We need a statewide system to make the fines fit a person’s ability to pay.”
In California, the base fine for running a red light is $100, but because the state piles on a number of fees, red light offenders are charged nearly five times as much. California’s $490 fine is the highest red light violation fine in the nation, according to the report. (The average red light citation is $154.) And for those cited who cannot afford the $490 by the deadline, the ticket increases to $815.
A 2015 survey by the Federal Reserve Board revealed that 47% of Americans said they would not be able to easily pay for a $400 hypothetical emergency expense. Fourteen percent said they would be entirely unable to pay, 10% said they would have to sell something, and 33% said they would be forced to use a credit card, payday loan, or borrow from friends or family.
And getting caught driving on a suspended license can result in jail time. Between January and April 2017, the Santa Clara Public Defender’s Office handled a total of 625 cases in which people were charged solely with driving on a license that was suspended due to a failure to pay a fine. These people face two years of probation, heaps of additional fines, and the possibility of time behind bars.
A 2015 investigation by KQED revealed that out of every 10 Menlo Park arrests for driving on a suspended license, 7 were black or Latino drivers. And in 71% of the cases, police officers had the arrestees’ vehicles towed, an action that is usually unnecessary. KQED found that most people were unable to pay the towing fee, and never got their vehicles back.
In the Bay Area, African Americans are 4 to 16 times more likely to end up in jail because of a failure to pay-related charge, according to the LCCR report.
The report recommends California stop suspending licenses based on unpaid citations, and stop arresting traffic violators on warrants for failure to pay or for driving on a suspended license.
The state should also create a system that considers a person’s ability to pay in order to determine citation amounts, according to the report. And those traffic violators who cannot afford to pay should instead be allowed to complete voluntary community service.
Two California bills introduced this year would bring about some of the recommendations. SB 185, authored by Senator Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys), would prevent the automatic suspension of driver’s licenses based on unpaid traffic citations, and would require traffic courts to consider violators’ ability to pay before setting a fine amount.
“Big fines for minor traffic offenses force many people to go deep into debt, lose their driver’s licenses and lose their jobs,” Hertzberg said. “It’s an overly harsh penalty that doesn’t fit the original offense. This bill restores basic fairness and common sense to fines and fees for minor traffic offenses.”
Governor Jerry Brown has also openly supported reform, including in the budget a proposal to end the practice of suspending licenses based on an inability to pay.
Another proposed bill, AB 412, proposed by Assembly member Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), would stop courts from penalizing the poor by levying $300 late fees on those who can’t afford to pay their traffic tickets on time.
This “up to” $300 “civil assessment fee” is a discretionary fee that can be tacked onto the citation balance. While not mandatory, nearly all courts in California routinely use the fee—and automatically impose it at it’s maximum allowable amount of $300. Revenue from the civil assessment fees goes right into the Trial Court Trust Fund, 100% of which goes into court budgets.
But allowing people to pay less per ticket, based on their ability to pay, as in the amnesty program, actually creates much more revenue. The recently ended amnesty program allowed the state to collect far more delinquent debt ($151 per amnesty case) than the usual methods of debt collection ($45 per case).
“The state legislature can and should act this year to stop punishing people for not having money to pay hundreds of dollars in traffic court fines and fees,” the report concludes. “Reform is needed and could benefit all Californians.”