Poor minorities most impacted by fail-to-pay license suspensions, study shows

Original article appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.
Written by By Nashelly Chavez
San Francisco residents who are either poor, minorities or both have their driver’s licenses suspended at higher rates for failing to appear in court and pay ticket citations than do others, according to a new study released Monday.
The study, conducted by Back on the Road California, a coalition of legal aid and social justice groups, found the number of suspended licenses throughout the state for drivers who could not pay citations or appear to court were concentrated in areas with the highest rates of poverty, as well as high levels of black and Latino residents.
The coalition zeroed in on licenses that were suspended because an individual could not pay a citation or because they did not show up to court, though there are other reasons that could result in a suspended license, including reckless driving or driving under the influence.
According to coalition advocates, both suspension types disproportionately targeted the poor and communities of color.
San Francisco’s Bayview-Hunters Point neighborhood, where nearly 24 percent of the population falls under the poverty rate, saw the highest number in driver’s license suspensions in The City, according to an interactive map that accompanied the study.
In Bayview-Hunters Point, a 6.7 percent of driver’s licenses were suspended for failure to pay fees or show up to court, more than three times the two percent state average. The neighborhood has the largest black population in The City, at almost 36 percent, and a Latino population nearly of 21 percent.
Another hot spot was Treasure Island, with a 5.1 percent driver’s license suspension rate. An estimated 50 percent of Treasure Island residents live below the poverty line, according to the map.
“Not having a driver license for many, many people means not having a job,” said Elisa Della-Piana, the legal director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of San Francisco. “That means that not only are you taking wealth from a community, you are limiting the income that families can make.”
The study also revealed that black drivers in San Francisco were disproportionately arrested for court-issued warrants after failing to appear in court. Although blacks only make up 5.8 percent of The City’s population, they accounted for almost half of all court-issued warrants stemming from failure to attend court, according to the study. Arrests of black drivers with suspended licenses followed similar trends, according to Della-Piana.
“Officers will often cite people or warn people for driving with suspended licenses,” Della-Piana said. “We are seeing that the people who are arrested are often black and Latino.”
The data for the report was obtained by the group after 40 California Public Record Act requests were submitted to the California Department of Motor Vehicles, and several sheriff and police departments in the state for 2013-15.
In addition to the report, the coalition is co-sponsoring a bill headed to the California Senate’s Transportation and Housing Committee today. The bill would prohibit license suspensions for individuals who fail to pay or appear in court. Individuals who had licenses suspended for failure to pay or appear would also have their licenses restored if the bill is passed.
“We need fewer people in our jails, we need more people able to work,” Della-Piana said. “[The bill] would say, ‘Let’s use license suspension as a public safety tool, not a debt collection tool.’”