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From Ferguson to Fresno, millions of individuals and families across the country are being unfairly punished for being too poor to pay traffic and infraction tickets for minor violations such as jaywalking or expired registration tags. And the price they most often pay, driver license suspension, releases a cascade of problems that drive them deeper into the clutches of poverty, frequently lead to incarceration, and prevent them from participating in and contributing to their communities.
A new study released by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, Paying More for Being Poor: Bias and Disparity in California’s Traffic Court System, shows that Californians pay some of the highest fines and fees in the country – more than three times the national average for running a red light. The high fines and fees create hardships for many middle-class Californians, but they can be devastating to Californians with lower incomes. And new Bay Area data reveals that African-Americans are four to sixteen times more likely to be booked into county jail on a charge related to inability to pay a citation.
California has the opportunity to create permanent reforms to this inequitable system. In Governor Jerry Brown’s budget, he proposes to put an end to suspending driver licenses just because someone cannot afford to pay. And two bills before the California Legislature (SB 185 and AB 412) would address many of the disparities documented in Paying More for Being Poor.
California's traffic fines and fees are some of the highest in the country, and new data shows that current California policies disproportionately impact people of color. This report looks at the most recent information available on California's current traffic court system, evaluates its impact on communities of color, examines the statewide fiscal impacts of these policies and practices, and offers some recommendations for how California could improve its traffic court system to become a national model for change.
Californians who cannot afford to pay a fine for a traffic citation face harsher consequences than those who can: some Californians mail in a payment, while those who cannot pay experience license suspension, arrest, jail,wage garnishment, towing of their vehicles, and job loss—for the same minor offenses. In 2015, the California Department of Motor Vehicles reported that over 4 million driver licenses had been suspended in recent years for failure to pay or appear on a citation—affecting about one in six California drivers. In April 2017, a DMV point-in-time count showed that 588,939 Californians had lost their licenses because they could not pay or appear in court. To address this significant toll on Californians, Governor Jerry Brown signed an 18-month California Traffic Tickets / Infractions Amnesty Program that reduced fines on pre-2013 traffic tickets by 80% for indigent applicants and allowed people to get on payment plans to get their licenses back.1The program allowed nearly 200,000 people to regain their driver licenses. That program ended in April 2017.
California now faces the question of what to do next. With the expiration of the amnesty program, there is no longer a pathway by which people who cannot afford topay fines may pursue license reinstatement. Californians lose the ability to drive legally as a punishment for being unable to pay a fine without any statewide system to make the punishment fit a person's ability to pay or to return a license if the person can make small payments. California has the opportunity to create permanent reforms to this inequitable system. In this report, we present data about the scope of the problem with license suspensions and traffic courts in California and offer some recommendations for policy solutions. We focused our research in the nine Bay Area counties and created fiscal analyses for statewide policy. Findings of note include:
• California traffic fines andfees are some of highest in country. Although the base fines for California Vehicle Code violations may be lower or comparable to many other states', the add-on fees—and particularly the $300 late penalty—make California one of the states with the steepest fines.
• 78% of Californians need a driver license to work or to get to work, which means California's current policy of suspending licenses for non-payment is putting at risk the ability of many California families to support themselves.
• In Bay Area counties, license suspension for failure to pay or appear is exacerbating the racial bias already present in traffic stops. As data show, people of color are more likely to be subjected to traffic stops. Once stopped, people of color are also more likely to be booked on arrests related to failure to appear or failure to pay. The available county-level data shows that African-American people in particular are four to sixteen times more likely to be booked on arrests related to failure to pay an infraction ticket.
• Even though traffic court is the most common point of contact with the court system—60% of all court filings statewide are traffic or infraction citations—it is very difficult for someone who cannot afford to pay the full amount to resolve a ticket. None of the nine Bay Area counties surveyed had information about alternative options for low-incomepeople on their websites, available by phone, or in person at the court clerk's office.
• If California changes its policy and stops suspending licenses for failure to pay, economists estimate that the state would generate $70-140 million in additional tax revenue from people who would be able to work, or make more income, if they had a license. Additional related fiscal benefits to the state could include more sales tax revenue and reduced need for public benefits programs.
• If California adopts a statewide standard under which people are assessed fines that are within their ability to pay, new research shows that the state may actually collect more money, and from greater numbers of people, on delinquent fines. For example, the California Traffic Tickets / Infractions Amnesty Program collected over three times more delinquent debt per case ($151 per amnesty case) than other criminal court-ordered delinquent debt collections ($45 per case).
Based on the findings in this report, California could increase equity in the consequences for minor infractions, as well as improve traffic safety, by:
(1) Stopping the suspension of driver licenses for failure to pay a citation;
(2) Creating a statewide ability to pay standard to ensure proportionate fines;
(3) Providing greater access to ability to pay information, including easily accessible forms on which to submit a request, notices, and web-based information; and
(4) Making it unlawful to arrest or jail someone for failure to pay an infraction.
As a follow-up to the findings in this report, we plan to release a toolkit of sample forms and procedures for California courts. California could be a leader in the implementation of policies that are beginning to be adopted across the country. Cities like Biloxi, Mississippi, and Jennings, Texas, have required their courts to determine ability to pay before punishing people for minor offenses. Massachusetts has enacted legislation to end automatic license suspension for non-driving offenses2, and Maine's Legislature is considering a similar bill.3
In 2016, the United States Department of Justice issued a letter clarifying that courts have an affirmative obligation to "ensure fair and accurate assessments of defendants' ability to pay,"and in November 2016 again urged basic respect for the principle that people should not be punished—that is, not arrested, jailed, or given a suspended license—just because they cannot afford to pay.4 California has not—yet—reached that goal.
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area works to advance, protect, and promote the legal rights of communities of color, and low-income persons, immigrants, and refugees.