CALIFORNIA

Driver's license suspensions push poor deeper into poverty, report says

Unpaid traffic court penalties are leading to driver's license suspensions for many of California's poor

Traffic-court fines layered with escalating fees and penalties have led to driver's license suspensions for 4.2 million Californians — or one in six drivers — pushing many low-income people deeper into poverty, a report released Wednesday by a coalition of legal aid groups found.

The report calls for, among other things, an end to license suspensions for unpaid tickets and a reduction in fees and penalties that raise a $100 fine to $490 — or $815 if the initial deadline to pay is missed.

It comes a month after the U.S. Department of Justice Civil Rights Division issued its report on Ferguson, Mo., which criticized similar practices for their disparate effect on low-income and largely minority populations.

"As in Ferguson," the California report noted, "these policies disproportionately impact people of color, beginning with who gets pulled over in the first place."

The threat of losing one's license over traffic tickets and other infractions has long been viewed as an essential tool for compelling violators to pay the fines. As these citation revenues have mounted, and court budgets have been cut, the state has come to rely heavily on them to fund a variety of programs.

But recent figures released by the Legislative Analyst's Office show that uncollected court-ordered debt has grown to more than $10 billion.

"It doesn't work," said Meredith Desautels, an attorney with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, the lead author of the report.

The report's proposed solutions are likely to face significant hurdles.

A 2014 bill to guarantee the right to a hearing for those who have missed an initial court appearance but are unable to pay in full stalled because it would have overwhelmed a strapped court system that has suffered $1 billion in cuts in recent years. A broader bill failed the previous year.

In his January budget, Gov. Jerry Brown proposed a limited amnesty that would temporarily cut unpaid traffic fines and penalties in half in hopes of collecting revenue for two insolvent funds that support training for law enforcement.

But the Legislative Analyst's Office has recommended it be rejected, saying it is "unlikely to raise the amount of revenue required to address the shortfalls in the [programs], and could potentially negatively affect future collections."

A spokesman for Brown said Tuesday that the amnesty program "is designed to reduce the outstanding debt and we will continue to work closely with the Legislature to address this issue."

Advocacy organizations hope to allay fiscal concerns with a proposal that would allow people to get their licenses back if they first agree to a payment plan, said Mike Herald, legislative advocate for the Los Angeles-based Western Center on Law & Poverty, which collaborated on the report.

If they fail to pay, he said, wage garnishment could take the place of license revocation, providing a way to collect "that doesn't destroy people economically by ruining their ability to get or keep a job."

"When you get 4 million people with suspended licenses and they're not paying, I think we've got a systematic failure," Herald said.

The report relays the experiences of clients who found themselves unable to pay burgeoning fees, lost their licenses, in many cases lost their jobs, and often stopped paying when they realized it would take years to fully resolve their debt and earn back the right to drive.

"I did make a mistake, but how long do you pay for that mistake?" asked James Eugene, 45, whose debt grew to more than $2,500 after he was stopped for driving a new car without license plates and then missed a court date because he was hospitalized with a blood clot.

His license was revoked and his case sent to a collections company, leaving no way to get a hearing or get his license reinstated without first paying in full. He kept driving to care for his children as he attempted to untangle his situation, he said, but was soon cited for driving on a suspended license and his vehicle seized.

"The hardest part is not being able to get back on calendar to talk to the judge," he said in an interview. "Mine was a missing plate. So petty. But that one plate cost me six years."

The San Francisco resident, who asked that his last name be withheld to protect his medical privacy, participated in a program recently developed by legal aid organizations with the San Francisco Superior Court.

As of January, those who are able to prove that they have a job offer contingent on a driver's license can petition the court for its return — as long as they have negotiated a payment plan to pay in full with the collections contractor.

With extensive help from the lawyers' committee, James Eugene was able to do so. Now, he said, he's "working on getting a car."

Desautels said she considers the program — along with a few others statewide that offer monthly court dates so ticket-holders with unpaid debt can be heard by a judge — "work-arounds for bad policy."

In Los Angeles County there are no such programs, though attorneys can seek hearings for certain cases, said Theresa Zhen, an attorney with A New Way of Life, which also helped prepare the report.

"I feel like I'm in a gaping hole that I can just not get out of," said Everette Cain, 28, of South Los Angeles, who accumulated $4,365 in fees and fines and lost his license after receiving three citations.

lee.romney@latimes.com

Twitter: @leeromney

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