Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, unveiled legislation today to prevent the automatic suspension of driver’s licenses for people who are unable to pay fines or fees for minor traffic tickets and require courts to determine violators’ ability to pay before setting fine amounts.
SB 185, introduced this morning, states that your economic status shouldn’t determine your access to justice and ability to make amends. In addition, any previously suspended licenses must be reinstated for violators who make a good faith effort to begin payment plans.
“It’s in everyone’s best interest to give Californians who are struggling to make ends meet a chance to keep their driver’s licenses, keep their jobs and pay off traffic ticket fines,” Hertzberg said. “We want all people, regardless of their income level, to be able to pay their debts and move on with their lives.”
Gov. Jerry Brown endorsed the idea in his proposed spending plan for the 2017- 18 fiscal year. In the budget plan, which he delivered to the Legislature on Jan. 10, he wrote: “There does not appear to be a strong connection between suspending someone’s drivers license and collecting their fine or penalty. Often, the primary consequence of a drivers license suspension is the inability to legally drive to work or take one’s children to school.”
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 traffic fine or failed to appear for a court hearing. 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.
According to a report issued last year by the U.S. Federal Reserve, 46 percent of Americans don’t have $400 to pay for an emergency expense and would have to sell something or borrow money to cover the cost. Traffic tickets often cost hundreds of dollars and can exceed $400, depending on the offense.
“We have to quit punishing people simply for being poor, and unfortunately, that’s what our justice system often does with high fines and fees for minor traffic offenses,” Hertzberg said.
The bill is sponsored by a coalition of social justice groups that includes the Western Center on Law and Poverty, American Civil Liberties Union of California and East Bay Community Law Center.
“When poor people get their licenses suspended because they are too poor to pay the ticket, the state won’t restore the license until they pay back all the money they owe,” said Michael Herald, legislative advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “But without a license, they can’t get to work or get a job, and people are trapped in poverty.”