Court improperly suspends poor people's driver licenses, suit alleges

Civil rights lawyers filed suit Tuesday accusing the Los Angeles Superior Court of improperly suspending driving privileges for tens of thousands of poor people because they can’t afford to pay their traffic fines.

The suit said the court triggers license suspensions by the Department of Motor Vehicles without determining whether the motorists “willfully” ignored fines or were too broke to pay the often exorbitant penalties. The suspensions disproportionately hurt black and Latino people, the suit alleged.

“If they are poor and don’t have the money to pay, by definition, they cannot be found to have willfully failed to pay,” said Antionette Dozier of the Western Center on Law and Poverty, one of the lawyers on the case. “They are just poor.”

The impact of traffic tickets on poor people came under scrutiny after the Department of Justice, in the wake of the police shooting of Michael Brown, issued a searing report finding that Ferguson, Mo.’s, license suspensions and other low-level enforcement fueled racial inequality.

A later study by legal and civil rights advocates found that more than 4 million Californians had their licenses suspended for unpaid tickets since 2006.The highest suspension rates came in poor neighborhoods dominated by black and Latino residents, including Compton, Bell, Hawthorne and East Los Angeles, a follow-up report found.

In Los Angeles County, black people make up 9.2% of the population but accounted for 33% of those arrested for driving with a suspended license from September 2013 to September 2015, the report said.  Without a license, poor people often cannot find a job, drive to medical appointments or get public benefits, advocates said.  

A bill proposed by state Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys) to stop automatic suspension of driving privileges for failure to pay minor traffic tickets is currently before the Assembly. 

The cost of traffic tickets soared during the state's budget crisis because of fees added to pay for state programs. The suit said what was once a $100 ticket now costs $500, and $800 if the first payment deadline is missed.

The lawsuit alleges that plaintiff Gloria Mata Alvarado lost her license after failing to pay a $712 fine for adjusting her seat belt while riding with her husband. Alvarado and her husband are disabled and living on fixed retirement and disability payments of $1,514 a month, the suit said. After she told the court she was disabled and unemployed, the judge would reduce the fine only to $600, the suit said. 

The suit was filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, but may have to be transferred to another jurisdiction to avoid a conflict, lawyers said. It asks the court to conduct a racial-impact analysis of its ticketing and license suspension policies and to institute new notification and hearing procedures to ensure individuals do not lose their licenses for inability to pay. 

Also bringing the suit were the USC Gould School of Law; Rapkin & Associates; Schonbrun Seplow Harris & Hoffman; and a New Way of Life Reentry Project. The lawyers also sent the Department of Motor Vehicles a letter asking that license suspensions be halted unless due process for poor people is guaranteed.

gholland@latimes.com

Twitter: @geholland

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The original version of this article incorrectly included the law firm of Hadsell Stormer & Renick among the groups that filed the suit against the Los Angeles Superior Court.

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