SF Gate: Yanking licenses over unpaid fines harms the poor, suit charges

Original article appeared in SF Gate

A repayment program established by the state last year to protect low-income Californians from losing their driver’s licenses over unpaid traffic fines is not working in many California counties, according to a coalition of civil rights advocates, who say local courts are failing to take a person’s ability to pay into account.

Led by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, the coalition filed suit Wednesday against Solano County Superior Court — one of dozens, it says, that have been intractable on the issue — and warned 26 others that they could be next.

Christine Sun, ACLU legal director, said the problem stems from the state’s practice of tacking on pricey administrative fees to simple traffic tickets, which can drive the price of a $100 citation to $500 or more. Failing to make those payments can result in fines that push the price hundreds of dollars higher — and well beyond the reach of many people living on fixed incomes or small paychecks.

State law permits the courts to suspend the licenses of drivers who fail to pay traffic fees and fines, and millions of Californians — 4.2 million between 2006 and 2013 — have lost their driving privileges. Under the 2015 amnesty program, drivers are permitted to keep their licenses if they arrange a payment schedule that takes into account their incomes. But the coalition says the courts are not doing that.

“Traffic fees and fines in California are extremely expensive, and the courts continue to suspend the licenses of people who can’t afford to pay exorbitant fines,” Sun said.

The coalition filed the suit, she said, because the law disproportionately harms the poor.

“We’re filing this suit in order to protect a fundamental principle of our justice system — that a person cannot be punished simply for being poor,” Sun said. “By not taking people’s ability to pay into account, the courts are hurting families, communities and the state as a whole.”

The suit alleges that Solano County unconstitutionally fails to determine whether a driver who leaves fines unpaid is doing so willfully or because of an inability to pay. It is the first suit challenging the suspension of driver’s licenses as a way to collect traffic fines, the ACLU said.

The ACLU is joined in the suit by Rubicon Programs, Bay Area Legal Aid, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, Western Center on Law & Poverty, and the Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman law firm.

The Solano County Superior Court administrator, Brian Taylor, said he’s prohibited from commenting on pending litigation.

Sun said Solano County is just one of 27 counties that is violating the constitutional rights of the poor. The others, including Sonoma County, will all be sent warning letters.

Charles Cotton, a former San Franciscan living in Stockton, knows how difficult it can be. A disabled Vietnam War veteran, Cotton receives less than $2,000 a month in Social Security payments. He struggled to arrange a payment schedule under the amnesty law to pay off debts of about $6,000 to San Francisco and $4,000 to Stockton.

After finally doing so, he faithfully makes the payments — right after paying his rent — but worries that if his Social Security check arrives late or a bureaucratic snafu occurs, as it did when his first payment was made but not properly processed, he could lose his license again.

“It don’t feel like it’s amnesty. They’ve just turned you over to a collection agency,” he said. “And the one in Stockton is very aggressive. I’m not trying to get out of it. I’ll do community service, I’ll make payments. But it has to be doable.”