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California stopped suspending licenses for failures to pay traffic fines. Why do some drivers who can’t pay still have suspended licenses?

By Rebecca Miller, Western Center Senior Litigator

In 2016, low-income motorists – represented by Western Center and other law firms — sued the California Department of Motor Vehicles for suspending the driver’s licenses of individuals who couldn’t afford to pay traffic tickets. As the suit progressed, the California Legislature passed AB 103, which abolished the practice of suspending licenses for failure to pay fines, and eventually we successfully persuaded the DMV to lift existing failure to pay suspensions. 

Abolishing suspensions for failures to pay was a huge win for Californians, and resulted in more than 200,000 people getting their license back. The progress made with failure to pay suspensions opened the door to address another issue facing primarily low-income Californians – license suspensions for failing to appear in court. While suspensions for failures to pay were repealed, courts can and do still suspend if someone doesn’t show up for their court date.

We have heard story after story of people affected by failure to appear license suspensions that they can’t clear. One man was forced to turn down a job that required a license because the court insisted he pay his tickets in full (money he doesn’t have because he is unemployed). Another woman, a disabled mother of four, is forced to drive without a license so she can take her kids to school and doctor’s appointments while she chips away at her balance $25 at a time. Neither driver was able to lift their failure to appear suspension without paying their tickets in full.

To address the conundrum, the City of San Francisco announced last month that it would reinstate licenses for people who failed to appear in court after finding that the primary reason drivers don’t appear is because they cannot afford to pay their tickets. Yet outside of San Francisco, there are lingering problems with notifications for failures to appear in court that continue to punish people for living in poverty. 

Some courts reinstate a driver’s license once a person appears, but other courts keep the suspension in place until the court debt is paid — essentially treating failing to appear in court the same way as failing to pay a fine. Although no county is officially suspending licenses based on failure to pay notifications sent to the DMV, Californians in many counties experience a cycle that goes something like this:

Miss a traffic court deadline for a number of potential reasons: I don’t have a defense, I don’t have the money to pay the ticket, or I’m afraid because my experience with the judicial system has created a fear of courts and judges — especially if I’m a person of color. It’s also possible that I couldn’t get off work, or don’t have sufficient transportation to get to an inconveniently located traffic court. The court then sends a failure to appear notification to the DMV. Depending on the underlying traffic offense, after one or two failure to appear notifications, my license is suspended, but I still don’t have enough money to pay the fines and don’t know how to get my license back.

A few counties allow people to go to walk-in court to “appear” by admitting guilt and agreeing not to contest the ticket. The court then sends a failure to appear release to the DMV, and the person can get their license back, even with an outstanding balance. Other courts find people who don’t appear guilty in absentia and never send a notification to the DMV in the first place.

But some courts will not release a failure to appear notification until a person pays their ticket in full, or completes all of their community service. In these courts, there is no walk-in court or forms to let you “appear.”  Even if a person files an ability to pay request saying they can’t afford the ticket and need the cost reduced or to be put on a payment plan, the court doesn’t count it as an appearance. Essentially, courts in this category use failure to appear notifications to coerce people to pay tickets they can’t afford, even though the statute and legislative history only allow courts to use failure to appear suspensions to compel a driver to come to court and either admit guilt or contest the ticket.

The move by San Francisco to reinstate licenses suspended because a driver didn’t appear in traffic court is good policy. It acknowledges that failure to appear notices are not related to driving safety, and that most failures occur because drivers can’t afford their tickets. It also recognizes that driver’s license suspensions are harmful — most Californians need a driver’s license for work and to care for their families.

However, San Francisco’s decision to take action doesn’t resolve the legal question trapping drivers in some counties: when is a court required to lift a failure to appear suspension? Despite some counties’ answers to that question, the law is clear. Courts cannot use failing to appear to suspend a driver’s license for an unpaid ticket or incomplete community service, and they cannot prevent drivers from clearing a failure to appear license suspension if there is no clear way for drivers to “appear,” or if the definition of an appearance is too narrow.

To ensure the elimination of failure to pay suspensions is a reality for low-income Californians, Western Center and our partners will continue to challenge these unlawful practices.