Landmark Lawsuit Settled, Paves Way for Fair Treatment of Low-Income California Drivers

Solano County adopts model policies that lessen the burden of traffic fines and fees

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: August 8, 2017
Media Contacts:
Linda Kim, Bay Area Legal Aid
, Lkim@baylegal.org, 510-250-5218
Bethany Woolman, ACLU of Northern California, bwoolman@aclunc.org, 415-621-2493

San Francisco, CA – A settlement was reached today in the first lawsuit in California to challenge the suspension of driver’s licenses as a means of collecting unpaid traffic fines. The lawsuit was originally filed on June 15, 2016 against Solano County Superior Court, challenging the court’s practice of suspending the driver’s licenses of people who could not afford the astronomical price of traffic tickets.

“Having to choose between food and a traffic fine is not a choice at all,” said Jane Fischberg, President and CEO of Rubicon Programs, a plaintiff in the suit. “This settlement gives us hope that we are finally moving away from unjust systems that criminalize poverty. We applaud the Solano Court’s good faith effort to make the system more equitable – so that everyone in our communities has an opportunity to achieve economic mobility.”

Prior to the lawsuit, the Court routinely failed to notify traffic defendants of their right to demonstrate they were low-income and unable to pay the fines – which the suit alleged was unlawful. The Court also lacked a mechanism for low-income drivers to seek a reduction in the fine or an alternative to payment based on their poverty.

Today, the parties filed a settlement that achieves the goals of the lawsuit. Under the terms of the settlement, the Court will notify every traffic defendant of their right to be heard regarding their “ability to pay.” The Court will update all notifications to traffic defendants, including its website, the oral advisements provided by traffic court judges, and the “notice of rights” handout given to all traffic defendants. The new notices explain the traffic defendants’ rights to ask the Court for a lower fine, a payment plan, or community service if they are indigent.

Further, the Court agreed to change its procedures for assessing a defendant’s ability to pay. For traffic defendants who are homeless, receive public benefits or are low income, the Court has agreed to consider alternative penalties that do not involve payment of a monetary fine – such as community service.

“We hope that Solano’s reforms will be a model for other counties to follow,” said Rebekah Evenson, Director of Litigation and Advocacy at Bay Area Legal Aid. “We laud the Solano County Superior Court and Presiding Judge Fracchia for working with us to reform their traffic system in a way that treats low-income drivers fairly and equitably.”

“We appreciate that the governor and legislature recently put an end to the harmful practice of using license suspension to punish low-income people who can’t afford to pay costly tickets,” said Christine Sun, Legal Director at the ACLU of Northern California. “Now we’d like to see counties across California follow Solano County’s example and address the exorbitant traffic fines and fees structure that plunges people into a cycle of poverty.”

A 2017 study by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, Paying More for Being Poor: Bias and Disparity in California’s Traffic Court System, showed that Californians pay some of the highest fines and fees in the country—which can devastate the lives of Californians with lower incomes.

People of color also bear a disproportionate amount of this burden. The study’s Bay Area data revealed that African-Americans are four to sixteen times more likely to be booked into county jail on a charge related to inability to pay a citation. Because of over-policing in communities of color and racial profiling, African-American and Hispanic individuals are more likely to receive traffic tickets than are white and Asian individuals and are far more likely to be cited solely for driving with a license that was suspended for failure to pay or appear in traffic court.

The lead plaintiff in the suit, Rubicon Programs v. Superior Court, is Rubicon Programs, a nonprofit that provides comprehensive employment, career, financial, legal and health & wellness services to thousands of low-income people across the Bay Area. Additional plaintiffs in the suit include the ACLU of Northern California, and Henry Washington, a low-income Hayward resident whose license was suspended because he could not pay a “fix-it” ticket. Plaintiffs were represented by:

  • The ACLU of Northern California
  • Bay Area Legal Aid
  • The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area (LCCR)
  • Legal Services for Prisoners with Children
  • Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP
  • Western Center on Law & Poverty

 

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Organizer, Comrade Umar Muhammad Killed in Accident

We at LSPC / All of Us or None mourn the loss of Forward Justice, FICPFM, & AOUON organizer Umar Muhammad, who was killed in a tragic traffic accident in Durham, NC.

Umar was 30 years old, and leaves behind his 2-month-old daughter and his partner.

LSPC Executive Director and AOUON co-founder Dorsey Nunn:

We’ve lost a young, gifted leader in Umar Muhammed, who took to organizing in a very deliberate and effective way. He will be sorely missed. His passion led him to fight for the full restoration of civil and human rights of formerly incarcerated people. It was a great honor to work with him. Sometimes you see a young organizer come along that truly fills you with pride, and it was inspiring to see Umar already picking up the torch to continue the struggle for social justice.

I remember him at the 2016 FICPFM National Conference in Oakland—now, we’ve distributed All of Us or None gear to many people across the country, but he walked in wearing an AOUON shirt that he had made himself. Even now, in the videos and photos accompanying the news of his passing, he’s wearing All of Us or None across his chest loud and proud. He organized and energized a vibrant AOUON chapter in North Carolina.

His death fills us with grief from one end of the nation to the other. There’s more than shock when a 30-year-old dies—in this case it was accompanied by tears and continuous grief. He leaves behind not only a host of friends, he leaves behind a 2-month-old baby who will have to find her way through this society without her father.

The last time I saw him, I gave him a blanket—a one-of-a-kind blanket, with the gold, clenched fist on it. I hope he wrapped his baby with that blanket. LSPC / All of Us or None committed to giving $1,000 to give to his child in Umar’s memory.

This accident forces us to look at our principles in a most intimate way, especially the principles of restorative justice. But it’s easier when Umar himself was so committed to those principles himself.

The funeral will take place in Durham, NC, in early August.

 

Action Alert: Last Committee for AB 1008 – Ban the Box, & SB 180 RISE Act Goes to the Floor!

Help Get Our “Ban The Box” Bill Out Of The Final Committee! 

Cal. AB 1008 infographicAB 1008 (McCarty) passed out of the California State Assembly and is now in the Senate Judiciary Committee. We need your help to pass AB 1008 out of this final committee by calling the seven members on the Sentate Judiciary Committee listed below and have them tally your support for the bill. 

AB 1008 will extend Ban the Box / Fair Chance Hiring policy to private employers, removing the “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” question from employment applications and prohibiting employers from performing a background check until after they extend a conditional job offer. Removing this barrier to employment allows formerly incarcerated and convicted people a chance to interview in person and be evaluated according to skills and experience relative to the job.

Please call the Judiciary Committee Members by end of day Monday, July 10:

Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson (Chair) – (916) 651-4019 
(If you make only one call, make it to Senator Jackson!)
Senator John M. W. Moorlach (Vice Chair) – (916) 651-4037
Senator Joel Anderson – (916) 651-4038
Senator Robert M. Hertzberg – (916) 651-4018
Senator Bill Monning – (916) 651-4017
Senator Henry I. Stern – (916) 651-4027
Senator Bob Wieckowski – (916) 651-4010

Feel free to use this sample script:

Hello, my name is __________ from [town in CA]. 

I am calling in support of AB 1008, the Fair Chance Hiring bill. 

Formerly incarcerated people already face many barriers to re-entry, and they/we need access to meaningful employment to take care of families and contribute positively to the community. 

Please extend California’s “Ban the Box” policy to private employers and give formerly incarcerated and convicted people a chance to show employers their skills and potential. 

[Share personal experience here, if applicable or possible—keep it short!] 

True public safety is created through employment, housing, and community. 

Please pass AB 1008 and add me to the support tally you keep for your Member. 

Thank you. 

[Bonus: if one of the members represents your district, let them know!]


WAIT! WHILE YOU HAVE YOUR PHONE IN YOUR HAND!
Help Pass the RISE Act! 

SB 180 - RISE Act - Sandra in committee 01 2SB 180 (Mitchell) is on the Floor of the Assembly and headed for a vote! The Repeal Ineffective Sentencing Enhancements (RISE) Act will end the three-year sentencing enhancements for certain prior drug convictions, a practice that, as LSPC Policy Fellow Sandra Johnson (at right) told the Public Safety Committee earlier, does nothing to help people with drug issues and just wastes human lives and taxpayer money.

We need your help to pass SB 180 by calling your Assemblymember and have them tally your support for the bill.

Can’t stop, won’t stop? Call these key Assemblymembers:

Assemblymember David Chiu (San Francisco) – (916) 319-2017
Assemblymember Evan Low (San Jose) – (916) 319-2028
Assemblymember Kevin Mullin (San Mateo) – (916) 319-2022

Feel free to use this sample script:

Hello, my name is __________ from [town in CA].

I am calling to ask you to vote yes on SB 180, the RISE act which ends the three-year sentence enhancements for drug related prior convictions.

These unnecessarily long enhancements do not increase public safety because they do not address the real proble which is often substance use and addiction. Sentence enhancements do not stop people from selling drugs; they do not stop people from using drugs; they do not stop people from committing felonies; they do not improve public safety.

The current system spends tax money on prison sentences instead of what we need to spend money on such as mental health counselling, drug addiction treatment programs, education, and vocational training.

I am asking you to prioritize funding these services that actually help people and improve public safety in our communities. Please pass SB 180 and add me to the support tally you keep for your Member.

Thank you.


 

AOUON-Logo-Circle w SpanishAnd thank YOU for taking the time to support AB 1008 (McCarty), SB 180 (Mitchell), and all the current and formerly incarcerated people and our family members.

We’ll need your help again when AB 1008 heads to the floor for a final vote, so keep up the fight!

For more information about our Ban the Box Campaign, check out our Toolkit here!

PRESS RELEASE: Advocates Commend Governor for Remedy to Address California Modern Day Debtor’s Prisons

June 27, 2017

California will no longer suspend low-income motorists’ licenses because they can’t afford to pay minor traffic tickets

 

SACRAMENTO–Today, Governor Brown approved the state’s $183.2 billion budget, which included funding to end the harmful and ineffective practice of suspending someone’s driver’s license because they can’t afford to pay a minor traffic ticket. Advocates applauded the move, citing the disparate impact license suspensions have on low-income people of color.

 

“License suspensions and arrests for failure to pay traffic citations have created modern day debtor’s prisons in California,” said Brittany Stonesifer, Staff Attorney with Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. “Unable to pay their citations, people already struggling to make ends meet are saddled with debt through an unjust process that fuels unemployment and feeds into mass incarceration.”

 

California has the highest traffic fines and fees in the country–often costing nearly $500 for just one violation. That is an insurmountable burden for many Californians. The resulting driver’s license suspensions have forced people into a vicious cycle of debt and poverty that can be difficult to break. A 2015 report, Not Just a Ferguson Problem: How Traffic Courts Drive Inequality in California, details how California has suspended over 4.2 million drivers’ licenses simply because people could not afford to pay an infraction ticket or failed to appear in court. Currently, a ticket in California for an infraction – such as a broken tail light, expired tags, or bus fare evasion – can ultimately lead to a suspended driver’s license if someone does not pay or make their court appearance.

 

“No one should lose their freedom, job, or be torn from their families and communities because they live in poverty,” said Mike Herald, Director of Policy Advocacy with the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “With 78 percent of Californians driving to work, a license suspension makes it nearly impossible for some to earn the wages needed to pay the ticket, which can result in arrest and job loss.”

 

According to a survey by the U.S. Federal Reserve, 46 percent of Americans do not have the financial resources to pay $400 for an emergency expense without having to sell something or borrow money. Moreover, advocates point to a recent report, Stopped, Fined, Arrested – Racial Bias in Policing and Traffic Courts in California, highlighting that driver’s license suspensions for failures to appear or pay a ticket disproportionately harm indigent individuals and people of color.

 

“Relying on excessive ticketing of black and brown people to fund government functions is an immoral practice that must be abolished,” said Elisa Della-Piana, Legal Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. “Our justice system was intended to do just that: deliver on its promise of justice – not use law enforcement as debt collection agents.”

 

By ending the harmful practice of using license suspension to force low-income people to pay for expensive tickets, the state’s new budget will help many Californians keep their jobs and stay out of jail. Advocates praise this important move, but continue to urge lawmakers to adopt meaningful and long-term solutions to address the other serious problems that still exist in California’s traffic court debt system, like making fines fairer. Currently, lawmakers are considering SB 185 (Hertzberg), a bill that would require courts to evaluate someone’s ability to pay a fine, to reduce a fine by 80 percent and dismiss any remaining debt after four years if a defendant is very low-income, and to more clearly notify people of their rights in traffic court.

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ACLU of Northern California
Community Housing Partnership
East Bay Community Law Center
Lawyers Committee on Civil Rights
Legal Services for Prisoners with Children
Western Center on Law & Poverty

Write a Letter to Support AB 1008 / Ban the Box!

Dear friends and allies,

Thank you for your interest in advancing AB 1008 (“Fair Chance Act”) (McCarty). We made it through the Assembly in a close vote earlier this month thanks in large part to your support letters, tweets, calls, visits, and emails. But we’re not finished yet!

The bill was just double-referred to two Senate committees, which means additional letters of support are needed to show the broad popularity of ban the box. Here is a sample support letter.

We ask that you please fill in the missing information, place it on your letterhead, and submit it via email as soon as possible – by June 21st if you can!

1. The Senate Labor and Industrial Relations Committee has scheduled AB 1008 for a hearing on Wednesday, June 28th at 9:30 am. That means letters of support are due to the Senate Labor Committee by this Wednesday, June 21st.

2. The bill will also go to the Senate Judiciary Committee, and we expect the hearing to be held on Tuesday, July 11th at 1:30 pm.

By June 21st, please email your letters to martha.gutierrez@sen.ca.gov (Senate Labor Committee) and timothy.griffiths@sen.ca.gov (Senate Judiciary Committee) and CC bavery@nelp.org (NELP) and cristina.salazar@asm.ca.gov (Asm. McCarty’s Office).

Please feel free to share this request with other California organizations that might be interested in supporting AB 1008. And thank you again for your support!

Sincerely,
Co-sponsors of AB 1008 (NELP, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, All of Us or None, and Time for Change Foundation)

Dorsey discussing Ban the Box on NPR

Debating the expansion of ‘ban the box’ to California’s private sector

Friday, March 17, 2017

LSPC Executive Director Dorsey Nunn was interviewed by Larry Mantle for his AirTalk program on NPR / KPCC-Los Angeles Radio. They discussed Ban the Box’s necessity & effectiveness in removing barriers to meaningful employment, as well as the new LSPC co-sponsored bill AB 1008 (McCarty), which will extend BTB / Fair Chance Hiring policies to the private sector in California.