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The California DMV restored more than half a million driver licenses. Here’s why

“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.”

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DMV reverses 550,000 driver’s license suspensions following lawsuit

“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.”

The Fight for Fair Traffic Laws Continues in California, With Positive New Developments  

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.


PRESS RELEASE: Court of Appeal Ruling Could Invalidate Thousands of Driver’s License Suspensions


SAN FRANCISCO —The California Court of Appeal ruled that the Department of Motor Vehicles cannot suspend the licenses of drivers who fail to appear in court unless the DMV receives a notification of a willful failure to appear. The court’s finding that the DMV’s practice was unlawful means that likely thousands of motorists have had their licenses improperly suspended.

The plaintiffs in this statewide lawsuit—Hernandez v. California Department of Motor Vehicles—are represented by a coalition of legal aid and civil rights groups, including Bay Area Legal Aid, Western Center on Law & Poverty, The ACLU of Northern California, the USC Gould School of Law Access to Justice Practicum, The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area (LCCR), and the law firm of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP.

This ruling marks another important step in a series of reforms to traffic court procedures that harmed low-income drivers without improving public safety. These reforms include the elimination in 2017 of driver’s license suspensions based on a driver’s failure to pay their traffic ticket.  In making that change to state law, Governor Brown noted there “does not appear to be a strong connection between suspending someone’s drivers license and collecting their fine or penalty. Often, the primary consequence of a drivers license suspension is the inability to legally drive to work or take one’s children to school.”

As many Californians know, losing a driver’s license is a serious consequence that has long-term ripple effects in their lives.  The Court of Appeal ruling affirms that state law does not allow traffic courts and the DMV to impose this severe consequence unless the traffic court also sends a notification of a willful failure to appear.

Poverty affects drivers’ ability to show up to court in many ways. Some traffic defendants lack transportation or can’t take time off work. Those who are homeless or unstably housed may not receive a mailed notice to appear in court.  In some cities, defendants can be turned away for bringing a child to court even if they have no childcare.

“With this tremendous win, someone who isn’t able to come to court because they are hospitalized, have to take care of an ill family member, or are afraid to come to court because of immigration status won’t be unfairly punished with license suspension,” said Elisa Della-Piana, Legal Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. “They won’t lose their job and fall deeper into a cycle of poverty because their license is suspended.”

Research shows that people who lose their driver’s licenses often lose their jobs, and that suspensions perpetuate and exacerbate poverty.  “Most Californians need a driver’s license to work and care for their families,” said Clare Pastore, professor at the USC Gould School of Law Access to Justice Practicum, “And the importance of a driver’s license is only heightened during the current global pandemic and economic recession.”

As the country reflects on its history and the current state of policing, advocates point out that they have long highlighted the disparate impact non-safety related driver’s license suspensions have on communities of color. “The racially disparate enforcement of traffic laws must be understood within the context of over-policing and the presumption of criminality imposed on Black and Brown persons. For too long, our over-reliance on punishment at the expense of Black and Brown persons has steered us away from effective public safety practices,” said Novella Coleman, Acting Director of Litigation and Senior Litigation Counsel of Bay Area Legal Aid.

“This decision reaffirms California’s commitment to common sense traffic enforcement.  Suspending the driver’s license of anyone who misses a traffic court date doesn’t make our roads safer, and it undermines people’s ability to work and care for their families,” said Rebecca Miller, attorney at the Western Center on Law & Poverty.  “I hope the Legislature and Judicial Council use this decision as an opportunity to reexamine failure-to-appear suspensions and continue to make necessary reforms to California’s traffic laws.”

A recent analysis of data from the San Francisco Superior Court shows no negative impacts on collection of debt after eliminating license suspensions for unpaid traffic citations.  San Francisco then went further and stopped suspending driver’s licenses for missing a traffic court date, too, clearing more than 88,000 failure-to-appear notifications that had been sent to the DMV.

“A major driver of that reform in San Francisco has been the clear consensus that failure to appear most often reflects poverty, not willful disregard for the court system,” said Anne Stuhldreher, Director of the City’s Financial Justice Project.

The case will now continue in the trial court to ensure the DMV implements policies consistent with this ruling.  As a result of the Court of Appeal’s ruling, thousands of Californians may get their driver’s licenses back. “By requiring the DMV to enforce the statutes as they were actually written by the Legislature, the court has taken an important step toward removing unjust penalties that perpetuate poverty and inequality,” said William Freeman, senior counsel at the ACLU Foundation of Northern California.


Media Contacts

Western Center on Law & Poverty, Courtney McKinney, cmckinney[at], (214) 395-2755

Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, Sam Lew, slew[at], (415) 272-8022

Taylor Brady, Bay Area Legal Aid, Tbrady[at], (510) 250-5234