June 15, 2016—Bay Area Legal Aid and our coalition partners filed a lawsuit this morning 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 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. “A driver’s license is key to economic survival, and no one should lose their license just because they are too poor to pay a ticket. The courts shouldn’t be funded off the backs of poor people,” said Rebekah Evenson, Director of Litigation and Advocacy at Bay Area Legal Aid.
Plaintiffs—Rubicon Programs, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California (“ACLU-NC”), and Henry Washington—bring this suit to put an end to this ongoing violation of state law and the California and federal constitutions. 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.”
Plaintiffs bring this lawsuit to protect a fundamental principle of our justice system—that a person should not be punished simply for being poor. In California, many thousands of people have had and continue to have their driver’s license suspended because they are unable to pay fines and fees related to minor traffic citations and other infractions. These fines and fees are not insignificant: over the past few decades, the fines and fees associated with traffic citations have skyrocketed. What used to be a $100 violation now costs nearly $500, as a result of the numerous surcharges and other fees that have been added over the years in order to generate revenue for the operation of the courts and other basic functions of State government. And if a person misses an initial payment deadline, the cost of a ticket can quickly balloon to $800 or more.
The consequences for not being able to pay these fines and fees can be severe and life-altering. Henry Washington, for example, lost his drivers’ license, was unable to visit family, and had to stop helping transport his disabled brother to medical appointments.
As in many counties throughout the state, although not required to do so, the Solano County Superior Court (“Superior Court”) routinely refers people, regardless of their indigence or ability to pay, to the Department of Motor Vehicles for license suspension just because they were unable to pay their traffic fines and fees.
As both the federal and state supreme courts have recognized, for many, having a driver license is not a luxury, but essential in the pursuit of a livelihood. Many low wage jobs require a license. Lack of adequate public transportation means that being able to legally drive can be necessary in order to work, or to take children to school or to medical appointments, or to care for ill or disabled family members. While those who can afford to pay, do, for those who cannot, the suspension of their license for nonpayment of fines and fees constitutes nothing less than a harsh sanction solely for being poor—a punishment that paradoxically further impairs a person’s ability to meet her financial obligations to the courts.
California law neither requires nor permits this result—indeed, the relevant Vehicle Code provision only authorizes courts to refer a person to the DMV for failure to pay when such nonpayment is “willful.” See Veh. Code § 40509.5. The state and federal constitutions also require that a person be given notice and an opportunity to be heard on whether she can afford the fines and fees imposed by the Courts.
Yet like many counties, the Solano County Superior Court acts to suspend the licenses for failure to pay traffic fines and fees without making this necessary finding of willfulness.
The result: low-income and indigent defendants have their licenses suspended even though the nonpayment may not have been willful and instead was due to an inability to pay.
The Superior Court’s practices constitute a system that impermissibly classifies and punishes similarly situated persons on the basis of wealth. Those who can pay traffic tickets do, and thus avoid the extreme sanction of driver’s license suspension. In contrast, those who cannot afford to pay have their licenses suspended, jeopardizing their livelihood, freedom, and ability to care for their loved ones, solely because of their indigency. Such a result violates the guarantee of equal protection under both our state and federal constitutions.
Not only do Defendant Superior Court’s practices violate the law, but they also are misguided as a matter of public policy. Indeed, in its recently issued guidance, the U.S. Department of Justice Ferguson Report (PDF) urged state and local courts to “avoid suspending driver’s licenses as a debt collection tool” because of the significant harm caused by license suspensions to individuals and families. As noted by the Department of Justice, “[r]esearch 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.”
Unconstitutional driver’s license suspension policies have important implications for California’s communities of color. A 2016 report (PDF) reveals dramatic racial and socioeconomic disparities in driver’s license suspensions and arrests related to unpaid traffic fines and fees. Public records from the California Department of Motor Vehicles and U.S. Census data demonstrate that in primarily Black and Latino communities, driver’s license suspension rates range as high as five times the state average. Moreover, data collected from fifteen police and sheriff’s departments across California show that Black motorists are far more likely to be arrested for driving with a suspended license for failure to pay an infraction citation than White motorists. Rates of driver’s license suspensions due to a failure to appear or pay a ticket are directly correlated with poverty indicators and with race.
The Courts have the power to cure the violations. Indeed, some California courts, such as Contra Costa Superior Court and San Francisco Superior Court, in an acknowledgment of the problematic nature of license suspensions for non-safety related reasons, have put a moratorium on license suspension for failure to appear and failure to pay altogether.
Plaintiffs are represented by Bay Area Legal Aid, The ACLU of Northern California, The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area (LCCR), Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, Western Center on Law & Poverty, and Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP.
For more information please contact:
Linda Kim, Director of External Affairs and Pro Bono, LKim@BayLegal.org, 510-250-5218
Rebekah Evenson, Director of Litigation and Advocacy, REvenson@BayLegal.org, 510-250-5226