Traffic Courts Don’t have a license to discriminate

Original article can be found in the Daily Journal – 3/28/2016

Written by Christine P. Sun

Last year, in a meeting that Chief Justice Tani Cantil Sakauye called “historic,” the Judicial Council unanimously adopted a rule to stop the unconstitutional practice of barring people from contesting their traffic citations until they had paid for the citation in full. It was a good first step to address the myriad ways that
traffic courts deprive drivers, especially those who are low-income, of their fundamental rights to due process.

But there is much more work to be done.

The Judicial Council can and should take a strong stance right now to put the brakes on another pervasive and deeply unfair court practice that harms the indigent and disproportionately affects communities of color: the use of driver’s license suspensions as a tool to collect court-ordered fines and fees.

It makes sense to suspend a license when a driver is reckless and dangerous and when the goal is to protect the public. But all too often, courts suspend driver’s licenses as a means of collecting debt on routine, yet exorbitant, traffic citations. Last year a groundbreaking report, “Not Just a Ferguson Problem,” authored by a coalition of legal organizations, found that over 4 million Californians do not have valid driver’s licenses because they cannot afford to pay traffic fines and fees.

The bottom line is, our justice system should not be punishing people for being poor.

The practice of using driver’s license suspension as a debt-collection tool is a crisis in California. And it’s having devastating effects on low-income families and communities. For instance, San Mateo County – one of the Bay Area counties where we’re pushing for a change in policy – has moved to suspend over 1,500 driver’s licenses in the first two months of 2016 alone, all for failure-to-pay traffic tickets. The consequences are very real. Because many jobs require having a license, the loss of a license only pushes people deeper into a cycle of poverty. Indeed, the federal Department of Justice recently cautioned that driver’s license suspensions for failure to pay fines “raise significant public policy concerns” because among other things, “research has consistently found that having a valid driver’s license can be crucial to individuals’ ability to maintain a job, pursue educational opportunities, and care for families.”

Driver’s license suspension as a  debt collection tool is not only devastating to those who face suspension, it’s ineffective. The policy of suspending licenses in connection with routine traffic tickets has been a failure – resulting in billions of dollars in court ordered debt that realistically will never be paid. Suspending a low-income person’s driver’s license for failure to pay enormous fines and fees serves no public policy purpose.

California is not the only state that suspends driver’s licenses for unpaid traffic tickets, but it does have the highest poverty rate in the nation. Nearly 9 million people statewide are living in poverty, making California residents especially vulnerable to excessive fines and the devastating impacts of driver’s license suspension.

Courts justify license suspension by their apparent argument that any non-payment of a fine is “willful,” and thus eligble for license suspension for “willful” failure to pay under state law. But there is nothing “willful” about poverty. It is simply a reality. As of now, it’s a reality that many traffic courts fail to take into account.

Traffic courts have a statutory and constitutional duty to create systems through which the court can meaningfully determine people’s ability to pay tickets prior to suspending a license. Both the United States and the California supreme courts have held that suspending a driver’s license triggers due process protection. And the California Supreme Court has held wealth is a suspect classification under the state’s equal protection clause. Traffic courts need to provide meaningful notice and opportunity to be heard on the question of whether a person actually has the ability to pay a traffic ticket prior to suspending a driver’s license for failure to pay.

Courts across the state can do this right now but are failing to do so – which is why we need the Judicial Council to take action.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s amnesty program is unfortunately not a complete solution. It does not prevent thousands of Californians from being caught up in the same web of traffic debt and license suspensions now and into the future. Many people aren’t eligible ~or a reduction in what they owe. And because amnesty doesn’t prohibit license suspensions, people can lose their license all over again if they miss a payment on an unaffordable payment plan. Further, even those who can be helped by amnesty are having trouble accessing it. The Judicial Council’s most recent statistics show that only a small fraction of persons who may be eligible for amnesty or license reinstatement have successfully applied.

Ideally, traffic courts would not refer individuals for driver’s license suspension as a
means to generate and collect revenue, regardless of the safeguards traffic courts may implement. But if courts are going to continue the misguided policy of using license suspensions to collect court debt, at the very least, the Judicial Council should adopt common sense rules – like the one it adopted last year – to create a uniform process to help ensure that our system is not punishing people simply for being poor.

Christine P. Sun is the legal and policy director of the ACLU of Northern California. The ACLU of Northern California, is joined by Bay Area Legal Aid the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, and the Western Center on Law & Poverty in urging the
Judicial Council to act.