Advocacy groups sue DMV for driver’s license suspensions

Monday, November 21, 2016

Richmond Confidential – By Alessandra Bergamin

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.

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