From Long Beach to Lancaster, an analysis of DMV data by the Western Center on Law and Poverty shows that people of color are losing their driver’s licenses in disproportionate numbers.
“I never imagined that it would escalate this far,” said Everette Cain, a South Los Angeles resident.
How Cain lost his driver’s license is a profile of injustice, according to a coalition of legal advocates for the poor in California. He lost his job and is now trying to survive selling odds and ends.
Like thousands of others, Cain’s offenses do not involve driving at all. He was first ticketed for getting on a Metro train without paying a fare. The penalties snowballed when he couldn’t pay the fine.
“Initially, the ticket was like $250. Then when I didn’t pay the ticket it kind of like doubled,” Cain explained.
A nonprofit called A New Way of Life was a contributor to the study and is helping Cain. The report found that many people unable to pay their fines continue to drive, then get into deeper trouble. Los Angeles County deputies made an alarming number of arrests.
“We have 19,000 arrests for driving with a suspended license,” said Theresa Zhen with A New Way of Life.
Those suspensions are not for reckless driving, but for failure to pay fines or appear in traffic court. Census maps show the vast majority of people impacted are African American or Latino in low-income communities.
“It is a manifestation of a problem of debtors. When somebody can’t afford to pay a fine and that is their only crime, those people are being punished with a license suspension,” Zhen stated.
Vehicles can be seized and a driver’s license is required to get the vehicle back, adding hardship to entire families. Attorney General Kamala Harris said her office is directing consumers to an amnesty program that helps them get out of debt.
Lawyers for the poor meantime are pushing for Senate Bill 881 authored by State Senator Bob Hertzberg. It would end the practice of suspending licenses for failure to pay fines.