Civil rights attorneys settle lawsuit accusing court of improperly suspending poor people’s driver’s licenses

A line stretches around L.A.’s traffic court building in 2010.
(Damian Dovarganes / Associated Press)

Civil rights lawyers have settled a lawsuit accusing the Los Angeles Superior Court of improperly ordering driver’s license suspensions for people who couldn’t afford to pay their traffic ticket fines, saying the court has agreed to notify drivers that they can ask a judge to evaluate their ability to pay.

“Courts were required by law to look at a person’s ability to pay a fine before ordering the suspension of a driver’s license,” said Antionette Dozier, an attorney with the Western Center on Law and Poverty, in a statement. “In Los Angeles, they didn’t follow the law.”

The court did not admit wrongdoing in the settlement agreement. An attorney representing the court could not immediately be reached for comment.


The lawsuit centered around Gloria Mata Alvarado, who was hit with a $712 fine for not wearing her seat belt while in the car with her husband. According to the suit, Alvarado and her husband are disabled and living on fixed retirement and disability payments of $1,514 a month. When she explained her situation in court, the judge reduced the fine to $600, the suit said.

She couldn’t afford that fine, so the court directed the Department of Motor Vehicles to suspend her license. Her attorneys said there are many others like her.

“Tens of thousands of people, primarily poor African American and Latino residents, illegally lost their right to drive,” said Lisa James, an organizer with the human rights group All of Us or None. “That meant they were prevented from fully living their lives, leading to lost jobs, missed doctor’s appointments, and other personal and family difficulties.”

Since the lawsuit was filed in 2016, the court has agreed to notify people cited for traffic violations — in writing — of their right to demonstrate their inability to pay a fine, according to the settlement. The court will also train employees on the ability-to-pay process and provide data to civil rights attorneys who will monitor compliance for a year.

“This settlement is a victory for low-income Los Angeles residents, who have been facing skyrocketing costs of living in recent years,” Devon Porter, an attorney with the ACLU of Southern California, said in a statement. “Now, courts are required to provide an accessible process for people to get traffic tickets reduced based on financial hardship.”

Last year, Gov. Jerry Brown approved legislation that prevents courts from suspending someone’s driver’s license simply because of unpaid fines.


Twitter: @AleneTchek