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‘License Suspension Should Never be Punishment for Poverty:’ Advocates Sue DMV

Civil rights advocates filed a lawsuit Tuesday in Alameda County Court seeking to prevent the California Department of Motor Vehicles from suspending driver’s licenses for people who can’t afford to pay traffic fines.

The suit alleges that the DMV can suspend licenses only when a driver has “willfully” chosen not to pay a traffic fine or appear in court. The plaintiffs argue that an inability to pay does not constitute a willful failure. They say for many people, a driver’s license is essential to get to work, child care or a medical appointment. The remedy, the suit offers, is to stop suspending licenses for a failure to pay a traffic ticket unless the court can adequately determine that the driver has the ability to pay the ticket.

The suit alleges that each plaintiff in the suit couldn’t pay the “exorbitant fines” associated with routine traffic tickets, and had his or her license suspended without an assessment of their ability to pay. The DMV estimates that more than 600,000 Californians have suspended driver’s licenses for failure to pay or failure to appear.

The plaintiffs are being backed by the ACLU of Northern California, Bay Area Legal Aid, Clare Pastore of the University of Southern California Gould School of Law, the The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, the Western Center on Law & Poverty, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP and the East Bay Community Law Center.

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