UpFront speaks with Theresa Zhen, Staff Attorney at the Clean Slate Practice of the East Bay Community Law Center and member of the Back on the Road California Coalition, which fights for traffic court reform. She is also a co-author of Ability to Pay Implementation in Traffic Court: A Toolkit for Advocates. Theresa tells us about ways to get your traffic tickets expunged.
SACRAMENTO – Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, unveiled legislation today to prevent the automatic suspension of driver’s licenses for people who are unable to pay fines or fees for minor traffic tickets and require courts to determine violators’ ability to pay before setting fine amounts.
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.
Civil rights lawyers say the problem is just as bad in liberal California and that the Culver charges illustrate how traffic judges have wide discretion to abuse vulnerable defendants and order fines that can destroy people’s lives. […] “It puts you in a spiral,” said Brandon Greene, staff attorney with East Bay Community Law Center. “They don’t have enough money, and they can’t pay the debt.”
Salmon — the Oakland resident featured in my story, who has legal support from the East Bay Community Law Center — has struggled with homelessness and unemployment and has been unable to pay fines tied to two minor traffic tickets over the last two years. The resulting license suspension has prevented him from getting multiple jobs, and he can’t afford to pay the more than $1,000 he now owes.
EBCLC’s Director of Programs, Elisa Della-Piana, is featured in Berkeley Law’s story covering the report “Not Just a Ferguson Problem – How Traffic Courts Drive Inequality in California” on the need for traffic court reform.
Elisa Della-Piana, a co-author of the report and program director of the East Bay Community Law Center, said she was initially excited to hear that the courts were moving swiftly to take up the issue. However, she and others from the Western Center on Law & Poverty, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Bay Area Legal Aid said they were disappointed that the change would not deal with the broader problem of motorists who incur substantial costs after failing to appear.
Mari Castaldi discusses how the 4.6 million people that currently have a suspended license will not benefit from the proposed changes to the pay-first policy in traffic court.
“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.’”
A deep dive into how we have been changing our laws, our police, and our courts, to treat poverty like a crime: the return of debtors’ prisons, the privatization of probation, and the reason why four million Californians have their drivers’ licenses suspended right this minute–and their numbers are growing by nearly half a million every year.