Legislation by Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, that stops the automatic suspension of driver’s licenses for people who fail to appear in court on minor traffic offenses or fail to pay fines for those offenses today was passed by the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee.
SB 881 ends an overly harsh punishment that does not fit the offense and sends many people of modest means into a downward spiral that can result in losing a job or even ending up in jail. Presently, 612,000 Californians have a suspended driver’s license due to failure to appear or failure to pay on traffic tickets, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles.
“We must restore common sense to our justice system,” Hertzberg said. “This legislation stops a practice that we know is an excessively severe penalty for simply missing a court date or failing to pay a fine on time and gives offenders a chance to make amends without pulling the rug out from under them.” Across the country, rising court fines, fees and penalties for minor offenses have proved especially burdensome to the poor and working poor, who can end up losing their driver’s licenses , jobs and freedom – sometimes going to jail – simply because they could not pay a fine or failed to appear. A New Jersey study found that 42 percent of people whose driver’s licenses were suspended lost their jobs as a result of the suspension.
In California, driver’s license suspensions due to failure to appear or pay have hit minorities and the poor at a disproportionately higher rate, according to a report issued Monday by a coalition of civil rights groups. In Los Angeles County, for instance, African Americans account for 9 percent of the population but made up 32 percent of those arrested for driving with a suspended license over a two-year period ending September 2015.
SB 881 follows Hertzberg’s landmark measure, SB 405, and Gov. Jerry Brown’s related budget proposal that together established a new traffic amnesty program on Oct. 1, 2015. The program allows people to talk to a judge if they want to before paying fines, restores driver’s licenses to those with a payment plan and reduces exorbitant fee debts by taking a person’s income into account.
In the first three months of that program, more than 58,000 Californians have received amnesty fine and fee reductions and more than 40,000 have requested reinstatement of their driver’s licenses, according to the California Judicial Council.
“We are on the right track,” Hertzberg said. “We must ensure our justice system is fair and sensitive to people struggling to make ends meet.” The bill is co-sponsored by the Western Center on Law & Poverty and the American Civil Liberties Union of California. “Hundreds of thousands of Californians are trapped in court debt they can’t afford and can’t pay the debt off because they had their license suspended and can’t get a job,” said Michael Herald, a legislative advocate for the Western Center on Law & Poverty. “SB 881 will allow people to get their licenses back and get their lives back.”