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Home | Access to Justice

To date, Western Center has delivered a number of important achievements in California to reform unjust fines and fees, including license suspensions, as well as exorbitant, often unaffordable assessments, which have led to discrimination and inequitable access to justice. These victories provide the foundation for a national model and include:  

 

  •  Western Center elevates the consequences of exorbitant traffic fees and fines to a high policy priority among stakeholders. The release of our coalition’s report, Not Just a Ferguson Problem (2015), led Governor Jerry Brown to publicly describe the situation as a “hellhole of desperation” and subsequently propose and pass an amnesty program. The Ferguson report spawned numerous legislative efforts to eliminate and discharge previously assessed juvenile and adult criminal fees, require payment plans and parking fine reductions for low income vehicle owners,  improve traffic court procedures and reduce traffic fines based on drivers’ ability to pay, eliminate driver’s license suspensions that are related to an inability to pay a traffic ticket, eliminate towing as a means to collect unpaid parking tickets, and improve debt collection protections for low income Californians with unpaid court or other government owed debt. 

 

  • We successfully advocated for court rules that were adopted in December of 2016, including Rule 4.335 which required courts to consider a traffic defendant’s ability to pay traffic fines and fees and allowed courts to reduce or waive fines and fees in appropriate cases. The new rules also made significant changes to the notices sent by the traffic courts, including requiring courts to inform defendants that they have the right to an ability to pay determination.  

 

 

  • In 2016, Western Center with co-counsel filed Rubicon Programs v. Solano County Superior Court, Alvarado v. Los Angeles County Superior Court, and Hernandez v. Department of Motor Vehicles, seeking to require the courts and the California Department of Motor Vehicles to end the automatic suspension of driver’s licenses for what is considered willful failure to pay fines without first assessing an individual’s actual ability to pay those fines. 

 

  • The Governor’s time-limited amnesty program in (2016-17) reduced fines and fees by 80% and restored licenses to 200,000 Californians who participated. 

  

  • In 2016-2017 Western Center worked on budget and legislative advocacy to reduce traffic fines and fees for low-income drivers, and to end driver’s license suspensions for a failure to pay a traffic ticket. In 2017, Government Brown ended the use of license suspensions for failure to pay a traffic ticket through a budget trailer bill. 

 

  • In 2017, through the Hernandez v. CA DMV litigation, Western Center and co-counsel successfully advocated for the retroactive application of the legislative change to end failure to pay driver’s license suspensions. As a result, between 400,000 and 600,000 Californians had their driver’s license restored.  

  

  • In further response to our fines and fees work, the Commission on the Future of California’s Court System issued a report to the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court in April 2017 recommending a civil model of adjudication for minor vehicle infractions, taking traffic tickets out of the criminal courts.  

 

  •  In 2017, Rubicon Programs v. Solano County Superior Court was settled in our favor with strong procedural protections for traffic court defendants unable to pay their fines. The Court will now: notify every traffic defendant of their right to be heard regarding their “ability to pay;” update all notifications to traffic defendants, including its website, the oral advisements provided by traffic court judges, and the “notice of rights” handout given to all traffic defendants. The new notices explain the traffic defendants’ rights to ask the Court for a lower fine, a payment plan, or community service if they are indigent; change its procedures for assessing a defendant’s ability to pay; and consider alternative penalties that do not involve payment of a monetary fine – such as community service for traffic defendants who are homeless, receive public benefits or are low income. 

 

 

  • In 2018, we settled Alvarado v. Los Angeles County Superior Court. The settlement agreement provides that the Los Angeles Superior Court will: allow all traffic/infraction defendants to demonstrate an inability to pay a fine; notify in writing all traffic/infraction defendants of their right to demonstrate their inability to pay a fine; train court personnel on the new rules; and provide a sampling of rulings on ability-to-pay petitions that will permit’ plaintiffs’ counsel to effectively monitor compliance. 

 

  • In 2019, we joined the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles and the ACLU Southern California in suing the City of Los Angeles, challenging the city’s practice of towing vehicles without a public safety justification solely because of lapsed registration and inability to pay parking tickets (Safuto v. City of Los Angeles). This case settled in 2020. The City agreed compensate Mr. Safuto for his lost vehicle, to reform its parking ticket payment plan options, and protect Angelos experiencing homelessness from having their vehicles towed while they were participating in the City’s CAPP program to resolve their parking tickets. 

 

  • In 2020, Western Center and co-counsel brought Freeman v. County of Riverside suit to stop Riverside County from continuing to collect juvenile administrative fees assessed prior to 2018 and to seek reimbursement for families from whom Riverside County illegally collected millions of dollars in fees for the time their family spent in juvenile detention centers. 

 

 

 

  • In 2020, AB 2325 (Carrillo) restored Section 4007.5 of the Family Code with a 3 year sunset. This law was allowed to sunset the previous year, requiring child support order suspensions to be processed manually for people who are incarcerated over 90 days, rather than have them automatically suspended. We worked in coalition on this bill with Truth and Justice in Child Support. 

 

  • In 2020, Hernandez v. Department of Motor Vehicles was settled in our favor. The key terms of the settlement agreement are: the DMV is prohibited from imposing or maintaining any driver’s license suspension that is based in whole or in part on a failure to appear notification that does not contain a notification that the failure to appear was willful. The DMV also lifted more than 500,000 driver’s license suspensions that did not have the required notice and provide notice to any driver whose suspension has been lifted. 
     
  • In 2022, Western Center passed bills to repeal failure to appear license suspensions and the use of license suspension for low-income parents in arrears on child support. Other wins included expanded protections for low-income debtors from wage garnishments and AB 2594 (Ting). WCLP supported and negotiated this bill that makes numerous changes to toll agencies’ collection practices. It waives penalties on old violations, eliminates the requirement that a person must deposit all tolls and penalties in order to get an administrative review of a violation, and requires toll agencies to have payment plans for drivers with incomes below 200 percent of the federal poverty level and caps payments for these plans at $25 a month and caps the maximum civil penalty for a violation at $100. 

 

  • Our 2022 budget advocacy led to reforms of court practices that result in tens of millions of dollars in penalties imposed on people who fail to pay traffic and criminal court fines on time or who fail to appear in court. The current $300 civil assessment is being reduced to $100. The budget agreement also discharged civil assessment debt that accrued prior to the change in law, debt which totaled more than $1 billion. This means hundreds of thousands of people will no longer have to make payments on that debt or be harassed by bill collectors. The budget also shifts all future civil assessment revenue to the state General Fund rather than to the courts. The past practice led to lawsuits alleging that judges are incentivized to impose the maximum assessment to increase court revenue.
     
  • In 2023, we announced a preliminary settlement in Freeman v. Riverside of $540K to be returned to Riverside, CA families who were unfairly charged daily cost of support fees for a family member in juvenile detention.
     

 

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