An unbuckled seat belt caused Gloria Mata Alvarado to lose her driver’s license.
When her husband was driving Mata to a doctor’s appointment for her gastritis in August 2012, her stomach began hurting. For relief, Mata adjusted her seat belt. But a police officer saw her take off the belt and cited her. When Mata tried to explain she had a genuine medical condition, the officer curtly responded, “That’s what everyone says.”
In court, Mata was ordered to pay $712, almost half the monthly income for her and her husband. (Both are on disability.) After telling the judge that she couldn’t pay the fine because of her limited means, a judge graciously reduced the fine—to $600. Unable to pay, her license was ultimately suspended.
On behalf of Mata, the Western Center on Law & Poverty filed a lawsuit last week to stop the Los Angeles County Superior Court from suspending driver’s licenses from those unable to pay court fines and fees. “Each year, tens of thousands of people in Los Angeles County are affected by this practice, losing their right to drive solely because of their poverty,” the Western Center asserted in its complaint.
Suspending Mata’s license without “notice and an opportunity to be heard” violated her right to due process under both the U.S. and California Constitutions, claimed the lawsuit, which was also filed by A New Way of Life Reentry Project, Rapkin & Associates, Schonbrun Seplow Harris & Hoffman and the USC Gould School of Law.