Court Fines and Fees

For several years, LSPC has been fighting to change unfair and punitive ticketing and license suspension practices in California. Being ordered to pay for expensive court-ordered debt puts increased stress on low-income families, forcing some to choose between paying for food and paying for court debt. Moreover, racial profiling and the over-policing of communities of color mean that traffic court policies and municipal tickets have the harshest effect on brown and black communities. No one should be arrested for failure to pay or for driving with a suspended license for a failure to pay. No one should lose their freedom, access to their jobs, or access to their families because of their poverty.

Legislation

LSPC has taken the fight to reform California’s traffic court system to the state legislature. In 2017, we are proud to co-sponsor two bills that would end the “pay to play” traffic debt process and help eliminate the financial strain that high fines and license suspensions put on low income Californians.

  • SB 185 (Hertzberg) would end license suspension for failure to pay for minor traffic tickets, require courts to evaluate a defendant’s ability to pay a fine, and create alternatives to full payment of traffic court debt. Learn more here and submit a letter of support today (template letter here)!
  • AB 412 (Ting) would prevent courts from charging $300 penalty fees against defendants who cannot afford to pay for court-ordered debt. Learn more here and submit a letter of support today (template letter here)!
  • LSPC is also supporting a proposal in the Governor’s 2017-18 Budget to end driver’s license suspension for failure to pay in traffic court. Submit a letter of support today (template letter here)!

Support our 2017 legislative efforts on social media using #DrivingDownDebt and these sample posts!

During previous legislative cycles, LSPC helped create a statewide Traffic Court Amnesty Program through our co-sponsorship of SB 405 in 2015 and SB 881 in 2016. The Amnesty Program, which ran from October 2015 to April 2017, allowed certain individuals with outstanding traffic court debt to reduce the amounts they owed, enter into payment plans, and have their licenses restored. While the Amnesty Program did help people in some counties get their licenses back and reduce the amounts of their tickets, its temporary availability and inconsistent application across California’s 58 counties underscored the need for permanent, forward-looking solutions for those who cannot afford traffic court debt.

Litigation

In October, 2016, LSPC joined a coalition of legal organizations to sue the California Department of Motor Vehicles for illegally suspending the license of indigent drivers. The case, Hernandez v. California DMV, asserts that the DMV has a practice of suspending the licenses of drivers who failed to pay for tickets, without receiving adequate notice that the failure was willful rather than a result of poverty. In doing so, the DMV is violating state statute as well as the due process and equal protection principles enshrined by the California and U.S. Constitutions. Read the full complaint here.

On June 15, 2016, LSPC, in conjunction with several other legal organizations, filed a lawsuit against Solano County Superior Court, challenging the court’s practice of suspending the driver’s licenses of people who are too poor to pay exorbitant traffic fines. In 2015, over 11,000 driver’s licenses were suspended in Solano County for failure to pay alone. This was the first lawsuit in California to challenge the suspension of driver’s licenses as a means of collecting unpaid traffic fines. Read the full complaint here.

 

 

Reports

LSPC, as a member of the Back on the Road California coalition, has published several reports on the harmful effects of unfordable court-ordered debt:

  • Stopped, Fined, Arrested – Racial Bias in Policing and Traffic Courts in Californiapublished in 2016, reveals a disturbing reality: our state has dramatic racial disparities in driver’s license suspensions and arrests related to unpaid traffic fines and fees, effectively creating modern debtor’s prisons. The report confirms what communities and advocates have been saying for years: people of color and poor people are disproportionately affected by police stops, driver’s license suspensions, and related arrests. In San Francisco, for example, Black residents are nearly 8½ times as likely to be arrested for failure to appear/pay as white residents. Comprehensive changes are needed to California’s court system and policing policies to end these unfair policies and practices.
  • Not Just a Ferguson Problem: How Traffic Courts Drive Inequality in California, published in 2015, reveals shocking data which show that the injustices in California’s traffic courts rival those described in the Department of Justice’s 2015 report on Ferguson, Missouri. Not Just a Ferguson Problem documents the exorbitant fines and fees California traffic courts attempt to extract from people who miss their court dates or payments. When the report was published, more than 4 million Californians had suspended driver’s licenses for failure to pay court fines in full or to appear in court. The combined effect of these license suspensions and excessive fines has been disastrous for people already struggling to make ends meet.

LSPC was also proud to contribute to Paying More for Being Poor, the May 2017 report released by Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. The report shows that Bay Area county superior courts do not have clear processes available for people to show that they are unable to pay for traffic tickets. Moreover, new data in the report shows that people are more likely to pay for court-ordered debt if it is assessed in amounts they can actually afford to pay.

 

Debt Free SF

As part of the Debt Free SF Coalition, LSPC is working with several other San Francisco organizations and advocates to help break the cycle of poverty created by the city’s systems of court-ordered debt. Debt Free SF pushed the city to create a Fines and Fees Taskforce, which provides advice to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Mayor, and other city departments on how to minimize the negative impacts of excessive traffic court fees and resulting license suspensions and of quality of life citations issued against people experiencing housing instability. This includes advice on the financial and criminal impacts of fines and fees, court-ordered debt, suspended driver’s licenses, and on the collection policies and practices of these fines and fees.

Check out the video below, capturing the stories of San Franciscans, explaining in their own words how court debt has affected them. Follow us on facebook to find out how you can get involved!