ABC 7 News: Report Finds Racial Disparities in Driver’s License Suspensions, Traffic-Related Arrests Across CA

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Originally aired April 11, 2016

by Vic Lee

A new report shows dramatic racial disparities in driver’s license suspensions and traffic-related arrests across California. A coalition of civil rights lawyers compiled the report from public records. ABC7 News spoke with the group in an exclusive interview.

READ FULL REPORT: Stopped, Fined, Arrested: Racial bias in policing and traffic courts in CA (PDF)

The Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights compiled this report titled “Stopped, Fined, Arrested.” All the information comes from police and sheriff’s department records. What they found was a two-tiered system traffic-related offenses.

“We looked at the data on license suspensions,” said Elisa Della-Piana, legal director for San Francisco’s Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights.. “They’re much, much higher in communities of color.”

The group’s report found a system with racial disparities for traffic related stops, fines, and arrests.

“It’s disproportionately impacting people who don’t have money and it’s disproportionately impacting people of color,” said Della-Piana.

Amaranta Flores Sotello ran a stop sign in Oakland and got a ticket. That was a year and a half ago.

“They gave me community service hours,” she said. “I completed all of them through a church. And then I paid the fees.”

Sotello thought everything was fine. But the system failed her.

“They didn’t update their records,” she said. “And because of that clerical error, my license was suspended.”

Sotello is a single mother of two who goes to a city college and and works. So, she had to drive. But, without a license. She was stopped again, went to court, and the fines kept piling up.

“I would say at least $2,500 in total and that’s including the community service hours and everything,” she said.

Her story is not uncommon.

In San Francisco, the disparities were stark.

For example, African Americans make up less than six percent of the city’s population. But they make up 48.7 percent, nearly half of those arrested for failing to appear or pay traffic court warrants.

Only 22 percent of white drivers were arrested for the same offenses, even though they are by far the majority in the city.

“Let’s arrest people where there’s a public safety violation, not because they couldn’t afford to pay,” said Della-Piana.

The good news to this story is that Sotello finally got her license back last month; this, after a year and a half of fighting.

San Francisco Superior Court responded to the report saying they are making reforms. They tell us they’re no longer suspending licenses because someone fails to appear or pay fines. And they’re no longer ordering bench warrants for traffic-court related offenses.

Watch the segment here. 

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