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Court improperly suspends poor people’s driver licenses, suit alleges

Civil rights lawyers filed suit Tuesday accusing the Los Angeles Superior Court of improperly suspending driving privileges for tens of thousands of poor people because they can’t afford to pay their traffic fines.

The suit said the court triggers license suspensions by the Department of Motor Vehicles without determining whether the motorists “willfully” ignored fines or were too broke to pay the often exorbitant penalties. The suspensions disproportionately hurt black and Latino people, the suit alleged.

“If they are poor and don’t have the money to pay, by definition, they cannot be found to have willfully failed to pay,” said Antionette Dozier of the Western Center on Law and Poverty, one of the lawyers on the case. “They are just poor.”

The impact of traffic tickets on poor people came under scrutiny after the Department of Justice, in the wake of the police shooting of Michael Brown, issued a searing report finding that Ferguson,  Mo.’s, license suspensions and other low-level enforcement fueled racial inequality.

A later study by legal and civil rights advocates found that more than 4 million Californians had their licenses suspended for unpaid tickets since 2006.The highest suspension rates came in poor neighborhoods dominated by black and Latino residents, including Compton, Bell, Hawthorne and East Los Angeles, a follow-up report found.

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