California Department of Motor Vehicles Reports Lifting 554,997 Improperly Imposed Driver’s License SuspensionsTuesday, June 29, 2021
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
June 29, 2021
Contact: Courtney McKinney, firstname.lastname@example.org, (214) 395-2755
DMV filing follows Court of Appeal ruling, marking an important step in the ongoing fight for fair traffic laws in California
SACRAMENTO, CA — In compliance with a California Court of Appeal ruling, the California Department of Motor Vehicles reported to the court that it lifted 554,997 improperly imposed driver’s license suspensions. The DMV action was the result of a statewide lawsuit, Hernandez v. CA Department of Motor Vehicles, in which several Californians challenged the DMV’s suspension of licenses based on drivers’ failure to pay traffic citations or appear in court. The plaintiffs were represented by Bay Area Legal Aid, Western Center on Law & Poverty, The ACLU of Northern California, East Bay Community Law Center, The USC Gould School of Law Access to Justice Practicum, The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area (LCCRSF), and the law firm of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP.
In June 2020, the Court of Appeal agreed with the plaintiffs that state law only allows a license to be suspended for a failure to appear in court when the traffic court notifies the DMV that the failure to appear was willful. In November 2020, the parties reached an agreement under which the DMV would clear failure-to-appear suspensions that did not include the required notification of a willful failure to appear. The DMV also agreed to change its policies going forward and now will only suspend a license where a court notifies the DMV that the failure to appear was willful.
The DMV reported to the court that it cleared 554,997 suspensions in December 2020. Previously during the plaintiffs’ lawsuit, California ended the legal basis for suspending a license based on a driver’s failure to pay a traffic fine, and in 2018 the DMV lifted several hundred thousand existing failure-to-pay suspensions.
“A driver’s license is essential to one’s economic security,” said Rebecca Miller, an attorney with Western Center on Law & Poverty who represented the plaintiffs. “In the majority of cases, California suspended licenses of people who could not afford to pay their traffic tickets. The result did very little to make our roads safer, but it imposed a severe penalty on drivers with low incomes, making it harder for them to work and care for their families.”
The lead plaintiff, Guillermo Hernandez, had difficulty paying a traffic ticket in 2016 for expired registration and failing to update his license with the DMV. The unpaid ticket then prevented him from renewing his driver’s license and impacted his ability to work and earn money to support his two kids. “I am happy that our lawsuit helped so many people like me who could not afford their traffic tickets get their driver’s licenses back,” he said.
While the result in Hernandez provided critical relief to hundreds of thousands of Californians, it is important to note the significant issues that remain.
End Failure-to-Appear Suspensions
Despite the limitation affirmed by the Court of Appeal, California law still allows license suspensions based on a driver’s failure to appear in court before the due date on their traffic citation. The DMV’s filing stated more than 600,000 failure-to-appear suspensions remained as of January 2021.
In the overwhelming majority of cases, a driver’s failure to appear is the result of financial circumstances, for example, not being able to pay their ticket, afford legal assistance, or get time off work to go to traffic court. California should end failure-to-appear suspensions.
State law does not require courts to notify the DMV of a driver’s failure to appear. During the COVID-19 pandemic, some courts, including Marin County, have temporarily halted this practice. “The harms caused by California’s expensive traffic tickets and punitive license suspensions existed before and will continue to exist after the pandemic,” said Elisa Della-Piana, Legal Director at Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. “Now is the time to end this counterproductive practice.”
At a minimum, courts should use willful failures to appear sparingly in the small subset of cases where the driver is a repeat offender and the failure to pay traffic tickets or come to court is not due to financial circumstances. Traffic courts are not in a position to conclude that a driver’s failure to come to court is willful if the court is not providing drivers with information about how to request a fine reduction based on income and how to resolve their ticket online, or by mail.
Read full press release here.