ACLU sues Solano court over license suspensions

Original article can be found in the Daily Republic

By Staff and wire reports

FAIRFIELD — A coalition of civil rights groups filed a lawsuit Wednesday against Solano County Superior Court over its practice of suspending the driving licenses of people too poor to pay what they call exorbitant fees for minor offenses.

The complaint filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and others claims the court’s actions violate both the state’s Vehicle Code and due process protections.

The legal action comes as lawmakers across the country are recognizing how escalating fines and fees affect impoverished people who either go into debt trying to pay off the ticket, or face suspension of critical driving privileges needed to work.

California Gov. Jerry Brown announced an amnesty program last year for certain drivers, calling the traffic court system a “hellhole of desperation” for the poor.

“We are asking the courts to stop funding their operations off the backs of poor people,” said Rebekah Evenson, director of litigation and advocacy at Bay Area Legal Aid, which is helping with counsel.

“A driver’s license is a fundamental right; it is the key to economic survival for most people,” she said.

Brian K. Taylor, Solano County court’s executive officer, said Wednesday that he was prohibited from commenting on pending litigation.

In its complaint, the coalition argued that courts can only act to suspend licenses for failure to pay if the driver “willfully” failed to do so. The coalition says that an inability to pay is not the same as a willfully failing to pay.

The ACLU sent Solano County a demand letter in April requesting that it stop the practice. At the very least, the coalition requested that the court inform defendants they can seek a payment installment plan or a judicial determination of their ability to pay.

The coalition has notified 17 other counties, including San Diego, Sonoma, Fresno and Merced, that their suspension practices are illegal and unconstitutional. It has reached out to nine other counties to talk about their practices.

The individually named plaintiff in the lawsuit is Henry Washington, who was ticketed in Solano County in 2010 for driving an unregistered vehicle that he had purchased to take his brother to medical appointments.

Washington couldn’t register the car because it could not pass a smog test. He was too poor to pay the fine and his license was suspended.