ACLU: San Joaquin among counties preying on low-income drivers

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STOCKTON — Charles Cotton soon will drive legally again.
It’s an action many people don’t think about, but one that seemed almost unattainable for the 63-year-old Navy veteran.
Cotton, like thousands of people in the county and state, lost his license as he was grappling with mounted debt as a result of unpaid tickets.
Last month, a coalition of nonprofits, including the ACLU, sent a letter to San Joaquin County Superior Court urging it to overhaul its traffic court’s practices, which they say disproportionately affects people who, like Cotton, are of minority and low-income communities.
“San Joaquin County is among the worst counties in the state for the number of suspension of licenses for failure to pay or appear,” said Elisa Della-Piana, an attorney for San Francisco-based Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights.
According to a report from the committee, more than 40,000 people in the county of nearly 700,000 residents had their licenses suspended for failure to pay a ticket or for missing a court date. The number does not include people convicted of driving under the influence.
Della-Piana said the county’s policy to refer people to the Department of Motor Vehicles to have their licenses suspended is detrimental and makes it more difficult for people to pay off fines. Many jobs require driver’s licenses, she added.
When Cotton, who overcame a drug addiction that started during his military service, attempted to regain control of his life, he said it was nearly impossible because of the debt he owed.
“I take responsibility for everything, but I didn’t have a chance to get it straight,” said Cotton, whose infractions include fix-it tickets, rolling stop signs, fishing without a license and driving on a suspended license.
Cotton said he turned to a state amnesty program intended to aid people unable to pay tickets, but the system itself is flawed.
Gov. Jerry Brown last October launched an amnesty program allowing certain individuals to pay 50 to 80 percent of what they owe, apply for installment payments, have some fees waived and licenses re-installed.
Cotton said, however, navigating the system is not easy. There is a lot of paperwork involved for each county. Cotton said he was lucky to get help from an attorney from San Francisco group’s Second Chance Legal Clinic, but not many receive assistance.
Through the program, four counties forgave Cotton’s debt, but two counties — San Joaquin and San Francisco — held his license, he said.
It’s taken five years, but he has since been able to settle his debt from $6,000 and $4,000 in San Francisco and Stockton, respectively, to $3,000 each and was able to get his license back.
“They gave me a deal to pay, but it’s like giving you another rope to hang yourself,” he said.
Cotton, who receives $1,600 monthly in Social Security payments, worries about making sure he makes his $75 payment to Stockton and $95 to San Francisco, while paying rent at his Stockton apartment and other bills.
“Now they have something to hold over my head — my license,” he said.
Della-Piana said she wants San Joaquin County to work with the coalition to change the policy and stop suspending licenses because someone can’t afford a ticket. The county needs to develop a procedure for people to show they can or can’t pay and stop arresting people for not paying traffic tickets, she added.
“Courts have a conflict of interest,” she said. “They’re in charge of collecting money to fund court operations. There’s no strong incentive to … ensure the process is fair.”
In the letter, which was sent June 15 and addressed to Presiding Judge of Court Jose Alva, the coalition gave the court until July 15 to respond or face a lawsuit. The ACLU has filed a lawsuit against Solano County.
On Friday, Alva told The Record he has referred the court’s traffic committee to look at the various issues mentioned in the letter and other aspects about how cases are handled.
There are some comments in the letter that raise a valid point, he said. This is an issue not just being addressed by the ACLU, but nationwide, and it deserves a second look.
“I don’t view the letter as a threat or anything like that,” he said.
Once the committee, which is made up of two judges, two commissioners and a staff member, is done with its review, the court will have a response about what it legally can and can’t do, Alva said, adding that he’s not rushing them to meet a deadline. The committee will look at the policies of other counties and courts, and that takes time.
“We are concerned about it and are looking it and are taking it seriously,” he said.
Cotton said with a smile that with financial help from two cousins he’s in the process of getting a car.
For the veteran, whose slow gait is caused by a health condition affecting his feet and requires a cane, it will be a great help since he volunteers several times a week at a transitional house for fellow veterans in San Jose.
“I’m not asking (the court) to wipe the slate clean,” he said. “Just make it doable.”