New York Times: Disparity Is Seen in California Driver’s License Suspensions

Original article from The New York Times

By Timothy Williams

Drivers in California who are unable to pay traffic fines for minor infractions are frequently having their licenses suspended by traffic courts — a policy that has had a disproportionate impact on poor and working-class people, according to a study released Wednesday.

In an Alameda County traffic court case, for example, a $25 ticket given to a motorist who had failed to update the home address on her driver’s license within the state law’s allotted 10 days led a traffic court judge to suspend her license when she was unable to pay the fine.

The accumulation of fees and penalties for late payment increased her fine to $2,900, and the woman — identified in the report only as “Alyssa” — was fired from her job as a bus driver because she no longer possessed a valid driver’s license and is now receiving public assistance, according to the report, which was prepared by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, which worked in conjunction with other California civil rights groups.

“These suspensions make it harder for people to get and keep jobs, further impeding their ability to pay their debt,” the report said. “Ultimately, they keep people in long cycles of poverty that are difficult, if not impossible to overcome.”

The report, “Not Just a Ferguson Problem — How Traffic Courts Drive Inequality in California,” found that in California, four million people — 17 percent of adults with licenses in the state — had their licenses suspended as recently as 2013 because they had failed to pay fines or to appear in court.

The issue of aggressive enforcement of traffic violations by police officers and the imposition by courts of substantial financial penalties for late payment has attracted widespread attention recently as state, county and municipal governments across the nation have increased fines, in some cases significantly, to offset budget shortfalls caused by the financial crisis.

A Justice Department report released last month in the aftermath of the fatal police shooting last summer of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager, found that the city of Ferguson, Mo., had used its police and courts as de facto moneymaking ventures.

Ferguson’s policies, the Justice Department report said, resulted in a disproportionate number of arrests, citations and traffic stops of African-Americans and was among the factors in the public anger that led to weeks of demonstrations there after Mr. Brown’s death.

In California, a 2012 state analysis unrelated to the new report found that assessments tacked onto tickets by California lawmakers meant that a $500 traffic ticket actually cost $1,953 — even if it was paid on time. A $100 ticket for failure to have proof of auto insurance cost $490 — and increased to $815 if the motorist missed the initial deadline to appear in court or to pay the ticket.

Among the fees included in the cost of a traffic ticket were assessments for court operations, court construction and DNA collection.

Data from police departments in California, including San Diego, showed that African-Americans were far more likely than others to be pulled over for a traffic stop.

Carlos Smith, 45, of Oakland, said he had received two traffic tickets, including one for running a red light in 2007. The original ticket fines totaled about $1,500.

Mr. Smith, a building contractor on disability, was unable to pay, so a traffic court judge suspended his driver’s license and imposed penalties that have increased the cost of the tickets to $3,600. The court has passed his debt to a collection agency.

No longer allowed to drive, Mr. Smith has enrolled in courses at a local junior college. He is unable to appear before a judge to explain his circumstances until he pays his bill in full, which he said might not happen anytime soon.

“I’m tired of being broke,” he said. “And I’m tired of not being able to pay my tickets.”