Drummond: License suspensions create hardship for poor

Sunday, April 19, 2015

San Jose Mercury News – By Tammerlin Drummond

A bus driver in Alameda County gets a $29 ticket for missing the 10-day deadline to notify the California Department of Motor Vehicles of her address change. A pretty penny-ante transgression. Yet when she fails to pay, her license is suspended. She can’t drive a bus without a valid license and gets fired from her job. The initial $29 fine soars to $2,900, which of course she can’t pay. The mother of two winds up on CalWorks, a public assistance program funded by taxpayers.

She is one of the desperate who has visited the East Bay Community Law Center in Berkeley, seeking help getting their licenses back. Her story is featured (she requested anonymity) in a recent report, “Not Just a Ferguson Problem: How Traffic Courts Drive Inequality in California.” Co-authored by the East Bay Community Law Center, the report details how the state’s imposition of huge fines and fees for very minor traffic violations has dealt a crushing blow to people living paycheck to paycheck.

In an effort to make up for lost revenue from budget cuts, the state has been suspending people’s licenses to pressure them into paying traffic fines for minor things like a broken taillight as well as municipal infractions like sleeping on the sidewalk. Considering that there’s about $10 billion in uncollected debt — $8 billion stemming from traffic fines, one could reasonably question how well that strategy has worked out.

What has happened is that 4.2 million people have lost their right to drive legally because they owe outstanding fines, fees and penalties. I stress legally because don’t think for a minute many people aren’t still driving — with no insurance. Just 71,000 of suspended licenses have been reinstated.

A mind-boggling 1 out of every 6 drivers has a suspended license. Not because of a DUI or some other public safety-related offense. But solely due to outstanding traffic court fees.

Low-income families get pushed even further into poverty when a breadwinner is stripped of a driver’s license. People have lost jobs resulting from a suspension. Not having a license also makes it much harder to find and maintain decent-paying work.

Gay Plair Cobb, CEO of the Oakland Private Industry Council, which provides workforce training, called having a valid license “a bare minimum” for job seekers.

“Oakland, in particular, is a center for jobs in trades and logistics which includes truck driving and the whole port activity,” she said. “We train people to take advantage of that sector of the economy and obviously they need their driver’s licenses to be intact.”

The problems start when a person misses the deadline for either paying the infraction or appearing in court. The court issues a $300 “civil assessment” plus additional penalties. You usually can’t get even get a court hearing to plead your case without first paying off the full amount due.

“People coming to our clinic want to pay but they can’t pay all at once because the fines have increased so sharply,” says Elisa Della Piana, director of programs at the East Bay Community Law Center. “They go to court and say I’ll pay you $50 a month or $100 a month but the court is saying, ‘we won’t even talk to you until you pay the full amount.'”

State Sen. Robert Hertzberg, D-Los Angeles, has introduced SB 405, a bill that would allow people who have had their licenses suspended as a result of nonviolent offenses to get them reinstated. It would create a sliding scale for payments, allowing the poorest drivers to pay 20 percent of their fines incurred before Jan. 1, 2013. A traffic amnesty proposal by Gov. Jerry Brown calls for a 50 percent reduction for all drivers regardless of income.

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