Clinic Report Spurs New Legislation to Increase Fairness in Traffic Court

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

not_just_ferguson_report_cover June 10, 2015 – Berkeley Law.

By Kirsten Mickelwait

In California, one in six drivers—4.2 million people—have had their driver’s licenses suspended due to minor traffic infractions that led to escalated fees, penalties, and court appearances. The existing policy has had a devastating and disproportionate effect on low-income and largely minority populations, forcing many into deeper levels of poverty.

Such are the findings of a new report, Not Just a Ferguson Problem: How Traffic Courts Drive Inequality in California, released in April by the East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC) and a coalition of other legal-aid organizations. The nationwide media exposure given to the 29-page report prompted Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye on May 18 to ask the Judicial Council of California to take emergency action to adopt a rule of court to facilitate access to justice for court users challenging traffic fines. In addition, the California State Legislature is considering SB-405, which would enable people to regain their driver’s licenses through an amnesty program that will allow payment plans and reduce accumulated fines by 50 percent.

Traffic courts as de facto revenue source

Even such minor infractions as missing license plates, littering, or jaywalking can result in suspended licenses if the driver cannot afford to pay. With the extra fees added to every citation, a $100 ticket automatically rises to $490. After one missed deadline, the courthouse doors are closed to the individual, even if unable to appear due to work or illness. The driver’s license is suspended until the fine is paid in full, and the fine increases again, regardless of the reason for the missed deadline. That original $100 ticket now costs $815.

According to EBCLC Director of Programs Elisa Della-Piana, the center has seen a strong increase in clients with suspended licenses in recent years – from one or two people per month to about ten people per week. A report issued in March by the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division called attention to disproportionate numbers of traffic stops and arrests of African-Americans in Ferguson, MO, revealing that the city had used its traffic courts as a de facto revenue source. Della-Piana said that the Ferguson coverage allowed EBCLC to bring attention to similar problems in California, where previous bills had not made much progress toward solving the problem.

“Both AB-2724 and SB-366 addressed this issue, but neither bill got out of appropriations,” Della-Piana said. “In part because of the national media attention generated by our report, the governor has proposed an amnesty program and SB-405 passed unanimously out of committee. That was the outcome we were hoping for, to inspire greater political leverage.” Continue reading…

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