By S.E. Williams, Staff Writer
Frank was working part-time when he got a couple of traffic tickets five years ago. He was paying in installments but had to stop because he could no longer afford those payments on top of increasing basic living expenses. He currently owes $6,800—$4,000 of which is penalty fees. He was offered a job, but the offer was contingent on getting a license, so he could not accept it. He remains unemployed and unable to pay off any of his debt.
Although Laura’s circumstances were quite different from Frank’s, her life was similarly impacted. Laura cares for her elderly parents. She needs to drive them to medical appointments, grocery shop for them, and pick up prescriptions. But she cannot, because she missed the deadline on two ‘fix-it’ tickets, and now owes the full fine amount plus $300 per ticket. As a result of nothing more serious than a broken taillight and a missed deadline, Laura cannot provide what her parents need and cannot see a judge to plead her case.
Frank and Laura’ scenarios are only two of the real life stories explored in Not Just a Ferguson Problem, How Traffic Courts Drive Inequality in California, a report by Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights (LCCR) of the San Francisco Bay Area that examined how minority and low income families in California are impacted by state laws and procedures related to traffic tickets.
According to the report more than four millions of the state’s residents have suspended licenses and collectively Californians owe $10 billion dollars in court ordered debt. Advocates believe the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights report may have played a pivotal role in the state’s focused action on traffic ticket forgiveness.
The recent budget deal reached between Governor Jerry Brown and state lawmakers will go a long way toward assisting individuals like Frank and Laura by reducing unreasonable fees added to traffic infraction fines and providing opportunities to reinstate licenses.
The budget related traffic ticket forgiveness agreement is the second major effort and acknowledgement by state officials that something is terribly wrong with its application of traffic fines and fees; and, how their application has weighed so disproportionately heavy on the shoulders of the state’s minority and low income communities.
In early June, the California judiciary made an historic traffic ticket ruling. The Judicial Council voted unanimously to bar courts from charging drivers bail before they can challenge traffic tickets. The new rule took effect immediately and gave citizens the right to fight traffic tickets without paying the fine first. The ruling also required courts to change their notices to the public to say that “no one will be required to pay upfront as a condition of a hearing on a ticket”.
Few citizens recognize that traffic courts are actually a subdivision of the county superior court’s criminal division. Although they handle driving and other traffic related offenses, such as failing to stop at a stop sign or failure to wear a seat belt, they also handle non-driving related traffic tickets like failing to have current registration or proof of insurance. But, their responsibilities do not end there.
Traffic court also handles tickets for infractions like littering, sleeping on the sidewalk, or failing to pay a transit fare. Whatever the reason for the infraction, individuals who miss one deadline in traffic court can easily find themselves subjected to a suspended license and/or the addition of more fines and fees. California suspends drivers’ licenses for many reasons however many readers will be surprised to learn that most drivers’ license suspensions are for non-driving related offenses.
The judiciary’s recent action on the issue of traffic tickets and related fines came in the wake of the release of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights (LCCR). The Judicial Council confirmed the report’s findings that once an initial deadline to pay or contest a ticket had passed many counties in the state refused a court hearing unless the fines were first paid in full.
Of course, by then in most instances the debt had already been sent to a state-contracted collection agency which had suspended the offender’s driver’s license and layered on an additional civil penalty making it even more difficult for the offender to resolve and resulted in an even more costly dilemma for the offender. The offender’s plight was often further exacerbated by the fact the license could only be reinstated when the fine was paid in full and in the meantime, penalties continued to accrue.
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights (LCCR) report concluded low-income Californians are being disproportionately impacted by state laws and procedures related to driver’s license suspensions.
The report confirmed due to increased fines, fees and reduced access to courts over four million Californians have suspended driver’s licenses. It also determined such suspensions make it harder for people to get and keep jobs; harms credit ratings; and, has raised public safety concerns. Ultimately, according to the report, “they keep people in long cycles of poverty that are difficult, if not impossible, for many to overcome”.
The LCCR report also highlighted the alarmingly discriminatory nature of California’s traffic ticket policies very similar to the discriminatory policies exposed in Ferguson, Missouri in the wake of the Michael Brown shooting that occurred last August.
Californians may have passively noted the shocking revelations regarding the city of Ferguson, Missouri’s traffic violation practices. The practices were exposed by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) made public in early March in response to complaints by Ferguson’s African Americans citizens of being unfairly targeted for minor traffic and other violations. DOJ found the courts and law enforcement agencies in Ferguson systematically and purposefully took money from the pockets of poor people—disproportionately African Americans.
The LCCR report made it abundantly clear that such disturbing practices extended far beyond Ferguson, Missouri all the way to California and could be found in places as far flung as Riverside and San Bernardino Counties. Although many have asserted the context in California is different, LCCR identified strikingly similar practices in the golden state.
It noted in California, just as in Missouri, policies and practices that have the propensity to turn citation offenses into poverty sentences as low income individuals experience the greatest impact. The report indicated this happens because the revenue incentives of fine collections lead to increased citation enforcement. Also, as part of the inherently flawed process, add-on fees for minor offenses double or quadruple the original fine; and, people who fail to pay because they do not have the money lose their driver’s licenses in the process.
In addition, once an initial deadline was missed, the report found courts routinely denied people the right to a hearing unless they could afford the total amount owed up front. As a result, payment in full became the sole means for having a license reinstated. It was not uncommon according to the LCCR report to see what used to be a $100 violation now cost nearly $500, with the very likely potential to jump to over $800 if a person missed the initial deadline to pay.
It is unclear whether Brown’s support for traffic ticket amnesty was in response to the LCCR report or was the result of federal probing. What is certain, however, was growing concern among advocates of minority and low income communities who saw the California justice system profiting off its most disadvantaged citizens.
A spokesman for the governor did identify the concern to at least one reporter as a civil rights issue that has prompted discussions between the Brown administration and the U.S. Department of Justice.
The budget agreement’s amnesty plan will ease the burden of state residents who cannot afford to pay mounting traffic fines and penalties and will help restore many of the over four million driver’s licenses suspended since 2006.
In addition to reinstating driver’s licenses to eligible program participants the traffic ticket related provisions in the budget agreement include granting amnesty and permit reinstatement of a driver’s license to eligible undocumented persons; providing a mechanism to reasonably garnish wages should a participant become delinquent on payments rather than re-suspending his or her license; granting 50-percent amnesty from state mandated fees and fines to persons whose annual incomes exceed 125 percent of the federal poverty level; granting 80-percent amnesty from mandated fees and fines to persons receiving public assistance or who are below 125 percent of the federal poverty level; requiring Judicial Council to establish affordable payment plans based on the ability to pay; and, directing the state Department of Motor Vehicles to notify motorists of the amnesty program via annual vehicle registration renewal forms.
Recent action by the judicial council, state legislators and Governor Brown on the significant issues related to the traffic ticket process should help ease some of the financial burden that has contributed to so many Californians being trapped in an unending cycle of poverty. Advocates of these revisions see them as meaningful steps toward bringing balance, fairness and justice to minority and low income communities.