San Francisco, CA – Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice urged local courts nationwide to put an end to policies that penalize people simply for being poor – including the practice of suspending driver’s licenses when individuals miss payments on fines. This practice is all too common in California traffic courts, and is not prevented by amnesty policies that went into place last year.
Today, a coalition of legal organizations put San Mateo County Superior Court on notice, demanding that the court change its policy of suspending the driver’s licenses of people who are too poor to pay exorbitant traffic fines. After several months of communication with the court system without adequate resolution, a demand letter was sent today by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area (LCCR), Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, the Western Center on Law & Poverty, and the ACLU of Northern California.
The coalition, joined by Bay Area Legal Aid, also sent a letter this morning to the California Judicial Council, urging the Council to instruct all California traffic courts to stop suspending the driver’s licenses of people who are too poor to pay exorbitant traffic fines.
Last year, Gov. Brown created an amnesty program for people who owed debt on traffic citations and had lost their license in a set time period. But anyone who got a ticket after January 1, 2013 is at best only partially eligible for amnesty. They are ineligible for a reduction in what they owe, and even if they can get their license back, courts are still allowed to suspend their license again if they miss a payment.
“Unfortunately, amnesty does nothing to prevent thousands of Californians from currently being caught up in the same web of traffic debt and license suspensions,” said Antionette Dozer, Senior Attorney, Western Center on Law & Poverty. “We need to take much bolder action by stopping the suspension of licenses and by significantly reducing the traffic fines on low income families. Courts can do that right now but they are failing to do so.”