“A driver’s license is essential to one’s economic security,” said Western Center on Law & Poverty attorney Rebecca Miller in a statement. “In the majority of cases, California suspended licenses of people who could not afford to pay their traffic tickets. The result did very little to make our roads safer, but it imposed a severe penalty on drivers with low incomes, making it harder for them to work and care for their families.”
“The Department of Motor Vehicles officially reported that it cleared more than 550,000 driver’s license suspensions back in December, according to one of the groups representing several Californians behind a 2016 lawsuit.
The release by the Western Center on Law & Poverty said the court sided with their plaintiffs last year.”
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
DMV filing follows Court of Appeal ruling, marking an important step in the ongoing fight for fair traffic laws in California
SACRAMENTO, CA — In compliance with a California Court of Appeal ruling, the California Department of Motor Vehicles reported to the court that it lifted 554,997 improperly imposed driver’s license suspensions. The DMV action was the result of a statewide lawsuit, Hernandez v. CA Department of Motor Vehicles, in which several Californians challenged the DMV’s suspension of licenses based on drivers’ failure to pay traffic citations or appear in court. The plaintiffs were represented by Bay Area Legal Aid, Western Center on Law & Poverty, The ACLU of Northern California, East Bay Community Law Center, The USC Gould School of Law Access to Justice Practicum, The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area (LCCRSF), and the law firm of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP.
In June 2020, the Court of Appeal agreed with the plaintiffs that state law only allows a license to be suspended for a failure to appear in court when the traffic court notifies the DMV that the failure to appear was willful. In November 2020, the parties reached an agreement under which the DMV would clear failure-to-appear suspensions that did not include the required notification of a willful failure to appear. The DMV also agreed to change its policies going forward and now will only suspend a license where a court notifies the DMV that the failure to appear was willful.
The DMV reported to the court that it cleared 554,997 suspensions in December 2020. Previously during the plaintiffs’ lawsuit, California ended the legal basis for suspending a license based on a driver’s failure to pay a traffic fine, and in 2018 the DMV lifted several hundred thousand existing failure-to-pay suspensions.
“A driver’s license is essential to one’s economic security,” said Rebecca Miller, an attorney with Western Center on Law & Poverty who represented the plaintiffs. “In the majority of cases, California suspended licenses of people who could not afford to pay their traffic tickets. The result did very little to make our roads safer, but it imposed a severe penalty on drivers with low incomes, making it harder for them to work and care for their families.”
The lead plaintiff, Guillermo Hernandez, had difficulty paying a traffic ticket in 2016 for expired registration and failing to update his license with the DMV. The unpaid ticket then prevented him from renewing his driver’s license and impacted his ability to work and earn money to support his two kids. “I am happy that our lawsuit helped so many people like me who could not afford their traffic tickets get their driver’s licenses back,” he said.
While the result in Hernandez provided critical relief to hundreds of thousands of Californians, it is important to note the significant issues that remain.
End Failure-to-Appear Suspensions
Despite the limitation affirmed by the Court of Appeal, California law still allows license suspensions based on a driver’s failure to appear in court before the due date on their traffic citation. The DMV’s filing stated more than 600,000 failure-to-appear suspensions remained as of January 2021.
In the overwhelming majority of cases, a driver’s failure to appear is the result of financial circumstances, for example, not being able to pay their ticket, afford legal assistance, or get time off work to go to traffic court. California should end failure-to-appear suspensions.
State law does not require courts to notify the DMV of a driver’s failure to appear. During the COVID-19 pandemic, some courts, including Marin County, have temporarily halted this practice. “The harms caused by California’s expensive traffic tickets and punitive license suspensions existed before and will continue to exist after the pandemic,” said Elisa Della-Piana, Legal Director at Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. “Now is the time to end this counterproductive practice.”
At a minimum, courts should use willful failures to appear sparingly in the small subset of cases where the driver is a repeat offender and the failure to pay traffic tickets or come to court is not due to financial circumstances. Traffic courts are not in a position to conclude that a driver’s failure to come to court is willful if the court is not providing drivers with information about how to request a fine reduction based on income and how to resolve their ticket online, or by mail.
End Civil Assessments
In California, drivers who don’t go to court or pay their traffic tickets by the deadline are hit with $300 civil assessments. This penalty and other later fees can exponentially increase the cost of a traffic ticket and can turn a $250 ticket into close to $900 within just a few months. While state law provides that traffic courts “may” impose this penalty “up to” $300, in most counties the full amount is assessed automatically by the court’s case management system with no consideration of the individual circumstances or the underlying violation. Advocates have also raised concerns about conflict of interest because most of the money from civil assessments goes to fund the courts. Trial courts that collect civil assessment revenue beyond a threshold amount are rewarded with an apparent proportional return of that money from the trial court trust fund.
“The widespread trial court practice of automatically imposing the full $300 amount reflects the questionable incentives set up by the current funding system,” said Novella Coleman, Litigation Director at Bay Area Legal Aid. Furthermore, the Judicial Council Trial Court Budget Advisory Committee acknowledged this problem as recently as April 2020 when it proposed changes to the current funding system to reduce the “perceived conflict of interest” and to reduce reliance on this “[u]nstable funding” stream, which “makes it impossible to provide fair, equitable and timely justice to all litigants.” The state Department of Finance rejected the proposal.
“We believe that it is essential to reform a funding system that is currently based on the racialized extraction of wealth from the most economically challenged Californians, predominantly Black and brown communities,” said William Freeman, Senior Counsel at the ACLU of Northern California.
Reform Driver’s License Suspensions for Child Support Arrears
California has made important strides to end driver’s license suspensions that are not based on unsafe driving. However, one significant area that still needs reform is driver’s license suspensions for child support arrears. California’s suspension process is one of the most punitive in the country and does not consider individual circumstances. As a result, many driver’s license suspensions make it harder for parents to work and support their children.
“California should continue the moratorium on license suspensions for child support arrears until the process can be reformed,” said Michael Herald, Legislative Director for Western Center. “Suspending licenses to reimburse the government for public benefits, for example, causes unnecessary harm to parents and stresses family relationships without sending any additional money to the children whose well-being the system is supposed to protect.”
Contact: Courtney McKinney, cmckinney[at]wclp.org
The ACLU of Northern California is an enduring guardian of justice, fairness, equality, and freedom, working to protect and advance civil liberties for all Californians.
Bay Area Legal Aid is committed to providing meaningful access to the civil justice system through quality legal assistance regardless of a client’s location, language or disability. As the only regional poverty law firm in the Bay Area, we work with 20,000 or more low-income Bay Area residents each year, opening access to the civil justice system and providing high quality legal assistance in areas of law that most significantly affect low-income people’s self-sufficiency: economic security/public benefits, housing stability and homelessness prevention, family law and domestic violence prevention, health care access and equity, and consumer law. Our litigation and advocacy practice extends this impact beyond our clients to improve health, safety, and stability for tens of thousands more low-income Californians per year.
The East Bay Community Law Center was founded in 1988 by Berkeley Law students committed to addressing the intractable social determinants that contribute to poverty and inequity. Today, the organization operates 8 nationally recognized anti-poverty clinics that provide free legal services to over 8,000 Alameda County households and train over 150 law students annually, while advancing policy solutions to disrupt systemic racism.
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area (LCCRSF), one of the West Coast’s oldest civil rights organizations, protects and promotes the rights of people of color, immigrants, and low-income people in California.
Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP is an international law firm with a particular focus on the technology & media, energy, financial, and real estate & construction sectors. The firm’s pro bono caseload is as varied as our lawyers’ interests, ranging from affordable housing to civil liberties, advocacy for victims of abuse and voting rights.
The Access to Justice Practicum at USC Gould School of Law in Los Angeles provides a hands-on opportunity for law students to work as colleagues with public interest lawyers and supervising faculty on civil rights and anti-poverty advocacy and litigation.
Through the lens of economic and racial justice, Western Center on Law & Poverty fights in courts, cities, counties, and in the Capitol to secure housing, health care and a strong safety net for Californians with low incomes.
Since 2016, Western Center has been fighting to end driver’s license suspensions for people who can’t afford to pay California’s high traffic fines, or don’t have the ability or means to go to court to resolve their ticket. In a state like California, where driving is often the only option for getting to work, taking kids to school, and shopping or visiting the doctor, license suspensions have a particularly negative impact on people already experiencing poverty. Suspensions for failing to pay or appear in court for a ticket also exacerbate racial inequities, because Black and Latinx drivers are more likely to be pulled over and as a result are disproportionately impacted by license suspensions.
These types of suspensions have very little to do with keeping roads safe — state laws provide other ways to suspend driver’s licenses for reckless and dangerous driving. Failure-to-pay (FTP) and failure-to-appear (FTA) suspensions are about debt collection — coercing drivers to pay their tickets. But for Californians who can’t afford their tickets, suspensions have a perverse effect, making it harder to pay and care for their families, often leading to further fines and mounting debt, and the risk of criminal prosecution and having their vehicle impounded.
Fortunately, since 2016 we’ve made inroads to limit these non-safety related suspensions; failure-to-pay suspensions were outlawed in California in 2017, and failure-to-appear suspensions were limited by a Court of Appeal decision in June 2020. But there is still work to do. Most counties still use a person’s failure-to-appear in court — which is often tied to a person’s financial situation — to suspend licenses.
The California Vehicle Code allows traffic courts to send a notice to the DMV when a driver does not appear in court or pay their traffic fine by the ticket’s deadline. In turn, the DMV is required to suspend the driver’s license after one FTA notice (in some cases two, depending on the underlying violation). FTA license suspensions often result from a driver’s inability to pay their ticket by the payment deadline, or to get to court by the deadline because of transportation problems or work conflicts. See the Driving Toward Justice report for more details.
Unfortunately, some courts misuse FTA suspensions by refusing to release an FTA license suspension until a driver pays their citation in full. Other courts only allow “one-way” due process by taking advantage of FTA suspensions, but only allowing a driver to appear to plead guilty in order to lift the suspension. The harm caused by FTA suspensions is even more severe, because counties have varying and unpublished practices that make it difficult for low-income drivers to navigate and resolve their tickets, and because counties have yet to fully embrace a 2017 court rule that requires them to consider a driver’s financial circumstances when setting the fine owed.
Western Center and advocates around the state continue to fight for fair traffic laws. We regularly hear from drivers about the impact these suspensions have on their lives, including lost employment opportunities or spiraling debt that leads to a misdemeanor charge for driving on a suspended license. We encourage drivers to speak up about the real life effects of California’s failure-to-appear suspensions and share their thoughts for how the system should be reformed to meet the needs of all Californians. If you have a story you would like to share, please send me an email. Here are a few recent developments:
Issues in Marin County
In 2017, Governor Brown eliminated suspensions based on a driver’s failure to pay their ticket, but Marin County traffic court and others continued to use failure-to-appear suspensions as a collection tool in a broader way than what’s permitted by the Vehicle Code. Even after a driver appeared in court on a traffic ticket or plead guilty by filing a plea form, Marin traffic court’s policy was not to release a failure-to-appear suspension until the ticket was paid in full, which is contrary to what the vehicle code allows, and undermines the Governor/Legislature’s elimination of failure-to-pay suspensions. Essentially, Marin was using failure-to-appears as prohibited failure-to-pays to coerce drivers to pay tickets.
In February of this year, Western Center and Bay Area Legal Aid sent a letter to the Marin County Superior Court requesting it stop the practice; Marin is now agreeing to do so, though, it is unclear how the process will unfold and how they will make sure the public and impacted drivers know about the change in policy. Marin is also agreeing to review its practices to make sure it is not misusing the FTA suspension tool by asking the DMV to suspend a license after a single FTA when the Vehicle Code requires two.
This example in Marin is emblematic of problems we see statewide: traffic court procedures vary significantly county by county, and even courthouse by courthouse within a county. Variations in policies and practices are not clearly communicated to the public through the traffic court website or forms, and the lack of transparency results in traffic court practices that do not comply with the Vehicle Code or recent changes to California Rules of Court that allow drivers to ask for a reduction in their traffic fines based on their financial circumstances. The drivers that are harmed by these discrepancies are overwhelmingly low-income drivers who can’t just write a check or use a credit card when they get a ticket. We hope Marin’s traffic court will take a different approach by adopting a written policy that will be available to the public online and made clear on relevant traffic forms so drivers with low-incomes can resolve their tickets and avoid unjust license suspensions.
Other traffic courts could and should benefit from Marin’s example, using it to check their own processes to ensure compliance with the Vehicle Code. Aside from the issues Marin has agreed to address, advocates see problems in traffic courts throughout the state where drivers are not able to appear in court after the appearance date has passed on an unadjudicated ticket to clear an FTA suspension, unless they agree to plead guilty. This one-way due process is clearly illegal: either the court has already found the person guilty, in which case there should not be a failure to appear hold/suspension, or the driver should be able to appear in court to contest the ticket. Advocates also see enormous variation and questionable practice when drivers ask the court to reduce their traffic fines based on their financial circumstance. In many courts, Californians with incomes low enough to qualify them for CalFresh or Medi-Cal have their requests to reduce traffic fines rejected, despite a Judicial Council pilot project that recommends drivers receiving public benefits have their traffic fines reduced by 50%.
Hernandez v. California Department of Motor Vehicles
Hernandez v. CA DMV was filed in 2016 and challenged driver’s license suspensions when a driver did not pay their ticket or appear in court. The failure-to-pay issues were resolved in 2018 by a combination of legislative change and litigation — drivers no longer have their license suspended for unpaid traffic tickets in California. This summer, Western Center and our partners at Bay Area Legal Aid, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights SF, ACLU of Northern California, USC Gould School of Law Access to Justice Practicum, and Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP won a victory in the Court of Appeal on the remaining issue regarding what type of notice a traffic court has to send the DMV to suspend a driver’s license for a failure to appear. The court sided with Western Center and our partners, finding that the traffic court has to send a notice that alleges the failure-to-appear was willful. This result will still require monitoring, since the determination of when a failure-to-appear is “willful” may vary by judge or county. There is also concern about whether courts have adequate procedures to consider information that would suggest a failure-to-appear was not willful, including communications with drivers that they were unable to appear or pay their ticket by the deadline.
Last month, we mediated a final resolution in this case. The DMV agreed to a stipulated judgment as to how the Court of Appeal decision will be implemented, which means thousands of drivers will have their licenses reinstated, and that going forward, the DMV will not suspend a license unless the traffic court sends the required notice that the failure to appear was willful. The next step will be advocacy to make sure traffic courts have fair procedures to determine whether such a notice should be sent when a driver fails to appear because of financial, work, family or other excusable reasons.
Dismissed suspended license charges
The Court of Appeal’s June 2020 decision in Hernandez has opened the conversation about the policy wisdom of misdemeanor charges for driving on a suspended license, particularly when the underlying suspension is based on a failure-to-appear that stemmed from poverty. In the wake of the Hernandez decision, courts have dismissed charges for driving on a suspended license – some across the board and some just in cases where the suspension is based on a faulty notice, as we argued in the Court of Appeal. The next steps are to continue to challenge these suspensions (and the resultant misdemeanor charges), including litigation/administrative advocacy for how traffic courts use failure to appears, and pushing to reduce the penalties for driving on a suspended license where the suspension is based on an FTA.