A coalition of advocacy groups is challenging the legal right of the California Department of Motor Vehicles to suspend the driver’s licenses of those who cannot afford to pay traffic fines.
The Back on the Road coalition, made up of seven California organizations and supported by the ACLU, claims that an individual’s driver’s license can only be suspended legally if the person has “willfully” failed to appear or pay a fine. Simply being “too poor to pay the fine,” according to the coalition’s complaint, isn’t enough to establish intent as required by law.
“The DMV is suspending licenses without any determination as to whether someone can actually pay the fine or willfully not appear,” said Theresa Zhen, a staff attorney from the East Bay Community Law Center and a member of the coalition.
Officials from the DMV declined to comment, citing pending litigation.
The case, filed late last month in the Alameda County Superior Court on behalf of four Bay Area plaintiffs, brings new attention to longstanding claims that traffic rules are enforced in ways that discriminate against poor people and racial minorities.
The coalition has launched a broad reform effort that includes legislation as well as the latest court challenge to address what advocates portray as disparities in the traffic courts.
“Our goal is to get a moratorium on license suspensions because of inability to pay traffic tickets so, this lawsuit is the culmination of years of working on various fronts and being ultimately unsuccessful,” Zhen said.
A ticket amnesty program was enacted by Governor Jerry Brown in early 2015. Those who qualify can reduce their debt, enter a payment plan and have their license reinstated. But the program is scheduled to end in March 2017.
The Western Center on Law and Poverty—another organization involved in the coalition—co-sponsored a bill which initially protected lower-income people from license suspensions in certain situations. Key parts of the bill were removed, however, before the legislation passed earlier this year.
Across California, more than 4 million people hold suspended driver’s licenses because of failure to pay fines or failure to appear in court. Small fines can quickly snowball, resulting in suspensions and, depending on the circumstances, criminal charges.
Driver’s license suspensions are having a visible impact on employment opportunities in Richmond, where warehouse and delivery jobs are proving hard to fill despite no shortage of applicants.
At a recent Amazon hiring day at RichmondWORKS, a jobs and unemployment center, applicants were required to bring a copy of their DMV record to the interview. Bouakhay Phongboupha, an employment specialist at the center, said driving history and license status were frequent disqualifiers.
Phongboupha said those with no driving experience sometimes proved to be the best candidates.
“If they say, ‘I’ve never had my license,’ I say, perfect!,” she said. “You can still get it. That’s better, that’s good news.”
Many people feel forced to keep driving on a suspended license, because they have no other way to transport children to school or get to medical appointments.
“Someone with a suspended driver’s license is not going to stop driving,” said Brandon Greene, an attorney at the East Bay Community Law Center. “In the Bay Area, on the whole, it is very difficult to get around without a car.”
A 2015 report—Not Just a Ferguson Problem: How Traffic Courts Drive Inequality in California— claims license suspensions disproportionately impact low-income and minority communities. The report was co-written by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, another member of the coalition.
“There’s this idea that people who don’t pay traffic tickets are scofflaws but that ignores what someone can afford to pay,” said Elisa Della-Piana, the legal director of the Lawyers’ Committee and a report co-author. “If I were choosing between paying for my rent and paying for a ticket, I would pay for my rent.”
An interactive map shows that San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood, for example, which has a relatively high rate of poverty and the highest percentage of African-American residents in the city, had a driver’s license suspension rate of 6.7 percent, more than three times the state average.
“I’m a white person and could break the law just as many times as a black person and have less chance of getting a ticket for it,” Della-Piana said.
A second report, undertaken by the same organization, found that across the state in primarily African American and Latino communities, driver’s license suspension rates range as high as five times the state average. The overrepresentation, the report suggests, is in part due to implicit and explicit racial bias and racial profiling in policing.
Prior to working at the Lawyers’ Committee, Della-Piana was an attorney at the East Bay Community Law Center, an advocacy and legal aid organization, where she witnessed the adverse impact of suspended licenses on employment.
Low-wage jobs, regardless of the role, require a valid California driver’s license as proof of reliability or responsibility. Without one, many are barred from sections of the workforce.
In New Jersey, a survey of suspended drivers conducted by the Motor Vehicles Affordability and Fairness Task Force at Rutgers University, found a strong correlation between license suspensions and unemployment. Of the people surveyed, 42 percent lost their job following a suspension. From those who lost their job, 45 percent could not find another and within that set, seniors and low-income individuals were overrepresented.
Poor public transport plays a large role in this: one study found that in Alameda County, job seekers made, on average, three or four transfers between Oakland and work locations in the southern and eastern parts of the county.
Driving on a suspended license can become a criminal matter. A first conviction is penalized by a jail term up to six months and a fine of up to $1,000, according to California’s vehicle code.
“You see a decent amount of folk get criminal offenses for driving on a suspended license,” Brandon Greene of the East Bay Community Law Center said. “People are in this perpetual cycle of debt and criminality stemming from the necessity of having to drive a vehicle.”
Emmanuel Johnson, one of the plaintiffs in the DMV court case, found himself at the center of this problem. Johnson could not afford to pay a speeding ticket issued in 2014 and was later unable to attend his court hearing. Following the court case, he sought to contest the ticket but was told it was too late to see a judge or reduce the fines.
Johnson, a Contra Costa County resident, continued to drive on a suspended license until his license was confiscated by police. While he has not faced jail time, Johnson was forced to decline a higher-paying delivery driver position due to the suspension.
His fines now total to more than $2,000. Johnson continues to work in a warehouse earning $15 an hour.