More than 400,000 Californians had their driver’s licenses reinstated last month after an appeals court ruled that the state was illegally penalizing people who failed to appear in court on costly traffic tickets.
The lawsuit was part of a broader, ongoing effort by legal advocacy organizations to roll back California’s traffic fines and court fees, which they contend disproportionately impact low-income residents and communities of color.
More than three million traffic infraction citations are issued in California every year, averaging between $600 and $700 each.
California has among the highest traffic ticket penalties in the country due to a litany of state and county add-on fees. A ticket for running a red light — which has a base fine of $100 — actually costs nearly $500 because of state and local fees, and more than $800 if the driver misses a deadline to pay or appear in court.
The ruling “limits this blunt instrument of punishing people for not taking care of traffic tickets when in reality, for many Californians, traffic tickets are simply too expensive to take care of,” said Rebecca Miller, senior attorney at the Western Center on Law and Poverty, one of the organizations that sued the Department of Motor Vehicles.
“Like any state in the country, we have over-policing of lower-income and black and brown communities in California.”
Several Bay Area residents sued the DMV in 2016 when their licenses were suspended after they failed to pay a traffic ticket or appear in court. Last June, a three-judge panel in the First Appellate District ruled in their favor, deciding that the state inappropriately suspended the licenses of drivers without formal notices from traffic courts that their failure to appear was willful.
As a result, the DMV lifted suspensions on 555,000 driver’s licenses. Because some had additional suspensions for other reasons, about 426,000 motorists were eligible to have their licenses reinstated, according to the DMV.
Legal aid groups — the Western Center on Law and Poverty, Bay Area Legal Aid, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area and the East Bay Community Law Center — represented the plaintiffs.
The lead plaintiff, Guillermo Hernandez, of Richmond, had been ticketed in 2013 for not updating his driver’s license information and driving without a valid registration, court records show.
Hernandez said he tried to go to court to take care of the ticket but was told twice that clerks couldn’t find it in the system. It was only later when he tried to renew his license that he discovered there was a hold on it for more than $900 in fines and fees.
“At that time I just didn’t have the money. I didn’t have work. That’s a lot of money… How am I going to pay it?’” he said, speaking in Spanish.
Hernandez had to cut back on his work buying and selling secondhand goods around the area. “I was afraid they would grab me and make me pay more money for tickets,” he said.
Hernandez said he’s glad he saw the lawsuit through the appeals court even after his attorney helped him get onto a repayment plan and get his license back before the case concluded.
“I feel really proud that I did something for society,” he said.