Civil rights lawyers filed suit Tuesday accusing the Los Angeles Superior Court of improperly suspending driving privileges for tens of thousands of poor people because they can’t afford to pay their traffic fines.
The suit said the court triggers license suspensions by the Department of Motor Vehicles without determining whether the motorists “willfully” ignored fines or were too broke to pay the often exorbitant penalties. The suspensions disproportionately hurt black and Latino people, the suit alleged.
“If they are poor and don’t have the money to pay, by definition, they cannot be found to have willfully failed to pay,” said Antionette Dozier of the Western Center on Law and Poverty, one of the lawyers on the case. “They are just poor.”The ACLU reports that they recently filed a similar lawsuit in Solano County:
A lawsuit was filed today against Solano County Superior Court, challenging the court’s practice of suspending the driver’s licenses of people who are too poor to pay exorbitant traffic fines. In 2015, over 11,000 driver’s licenses were suspended in Solano County for failure to pay alone. In California, millions of people do not have valid driver’s licenses because they cannot afford to pay traffic fines and fees. This is the first lawsuit in California to challenge the suspension of driver’s licenses as a means of collecting unpaid traffic fines.
Lead plaintiff in the suit is Rubicon, a nonprofit that provides employment, career, financial, legal and health & wellness services thousands of low-income people across the Bay Area. “Many of Rubicon’s program participants rely upon having a driver’s license to find or keep employment,” said Jane Fischberg, CEO, Rubicon Programs. “When their license is suspended due to traffic fines and fees they cannot afford to pay, our participants’ lives are put on hold, and their families suffer.”:Here is the complaint for the ACLU lawsuit. I have not yet been able to find a copy of the Los Angeles County lawsuit. The ACLU complaint and this press release on the Los Angeles complaint indicate that both lawsuits allege violations of due process rights when drivers' licenses are suspended due to failure to pay traffic fines.
Vehicle Code section 14601.1 criminalizes driving on a suspended license. There is a mandatory minimum fine of $300 for first time offenses, and a mandatory minimum $500 fine for offenses that occur within five years of an initial violation. With court fees and penalties factored in, these fines can total to thousands of dollars. These can be a substantial -- if not impossible -- burden on people whose licenses were suspended due to failure to pay fines on other traffic offenses. And, as this report suggests, the burden of suspended licenses tends to fall disproportionately on racial minorities and the poor.
Unfortunately, I do not have the time to investigate the legal questions these lawsuits raise to give an evaluation of the complaints' merits. But I do think that these lawsuits highlight an important, if under-emphasized aspect of California criminal law. The mandatory fines accompanying suspended license violations may render it impossible for those convicted to pay off their fines and obtain the ability to drive.
In areas of California where driving is a virtual necessity, these laws and their associated penalties may present an insurmountable obstacle on those who are convicted. While these violations are misdemeanors or infractions, the impact they have on people's lives can be profound. These lawsuits will hopefully draw attention to this unfortunate reality, and perhaps will prompt changes that lead to a more practical set of suspended license laws.
One of the organizations representing the Plaintiff in the Los Angeles lawsuit is A New Way of Life, which runs a reentry clinic in conjunction with UCLA School of Law's El Centro legal clinics program. I volunteered for the reentry clinic from 2011 to 2014. On the other hand, I filed and prosecuted dozens of driving on suspended license cases between 2014 and 2015 while I worked for the Orange County District Attorney's Office. So it is up to you, dear reader, to determine the direction of my potential biases.