State senator pushes bill to reduce driver’s license suspensions

State Sen. Bob Hertzberg has proposed a bill that would limit the suspension of driver's licenses because of unpaid fines.

State Sen. Bob Hertzberg has proposed a bill that would limit the suspension of driver’s licenses because of unpaid fines.

(Ken Hively / Los Angeles Times)

A state senator proposed legislation Wednesday that would reduce the number of driver’s license suspensions incurred for unpaid traffic citations that do not affect public safety, after a report found that low-income Californians are being driven further into poverty by the practice.

State Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys) announced details of Senate Bill 405 on the same day that a coalition of civil rights and legal aid groups released a report noting that 4.2 million Californians have had their driver’s licenses suspended over the last eight years after failing to pay escalating traffic fees and fines. Just 71,000 have been restored.

“So many local jurisdictions pile on fees for minor traffic violations to make up for lost revenue during the recent economic recession,” Hertzberg said in a statement. “This trend makes it even more difficult to find and keep a job. What’s happened is a situation where minor traffic tickets can push a family deep into debt.”

The legislation would help those with a current suspension for nonviolent offenses such as broken taillights or expired tags to get their driving privileges restored, he said, as long as they paid their debt in full. It would seek to match beneficiaries with an amnesty program proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown.


That program aims to reduce fees and fines by 50% for eligible participants over an 18-month period.

A portion of the money raised by Brown’s proposed amnesty would be earmarked for two insolvent funds that provide training for local law enforcement.

Uncollected court-ordered debt in California has burgeoned to more than $10 billion, and by reducing fines the proposed amnesty program aims to encourage payment.

The legislative analyst’s office, however, has urged lawmakers to reject the governor’s proposal, saying it is not likely to raise the needed dollars and could dissuade those who owe money from paying in the future.


Hertzberg called the use of driver’s license suspensions to compel payment “a Catch 22 that traps people in a cycle of poverty.”

Under existing law, it is virtually impossible for the driver’s license to be restored -- or in most counties to obtain a hearing before a judge -- until all the unpaid fees, fines and penalties imposed by outside collection agencies are paid in full.

Hertzberg referenced a recent New Jersey study that found that when a license was suspended, 42% of drivers lost their jobs. Of those, 45% were unable to find a new job, and another study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that 75% of people with suspended licenses keep driving -- often without insurance.

“This common-sense measure not only creates economic stability for thousands of Californians but also improves public safety by reducing the number of insurance-less drivers on the road,” said Michael Herald of the Western Center on Law and Poverty, which collaborated on the study.


Twitter: @leeromney