San Francisco Chronicle: 4.2 million have lost driver’s licenses because of unpaid fees

Original article appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.

By Bob Egelko

Unpaid traffic fines and mushrooming fees have left 4.2 million Californians with suspended driver’s licenses — more than one-sixth of the licenses issued statewide — with poor people the hardest-hit, according to a newly published study that criticizes policies that take drivers off the road because of debts they can’t pay.
Surcharges tacked on by courts and other revenue-starved agencies, severe penalties for missing early payment deadlines and rules barring drivers with unpaid bills from even appearing in court have turned traffic citations into engines of unemployment and mounting debt, said the report issued Wednesday by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco.
“A litany of practices and policies turn a citation offense into a poverty sentence,” the study said. It said many practices in California were “chillingly similar” to those in Ferguson, Mo., where the U.S. Department of Justice recently concluded that traffic fines were systematically transferred from poor and black residents to city coffers.
The report cited the case of an Alameda County woman, “Alyssa,” who was working as a bus driver in 2010 when she changed her residence and got a $25 ticket for missing a 10-day legal deadline to notify the Department of Motor Vehicles. Unaware that she still owed the fine after contacting the DMV, she failed to pay, had her license suspended, was fired from her job and has been unable to find work or come up with funds for the payments, the report said. She now supports her children on welfare, and because of late fees, surcharges and penalties, the $25 ticket has ballooned to $2,900.
Even for those who pay immediately, the report said, a $100 fine for a minor violation like a broken taillight now costs California motorists $490 because of added state and local fees. Those who miss the initial payment deadline suffer a $300 surcharge — to fund the courts — and have their licenses suspended. The same holds true for those who fail to pay fines for infractions such as littering, which are also prosecuted in traffic court. And those who fail to pay the full amount are not entitled to a court hearing.
Between 2006 and 2013, the latest period for which figures were available, nearly 4.3 million drivers’ licenses were suspended in California, and only 70,000 were reinstated, the study said. DMV records showed 24.6 million licenses statewide at the start of 2014.
“This is a catch-22 that traps people in a cycle of poverty,” said state Sen. Robert Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, who has introduced legislation to restore some of the suspended licenses. His SB405 would allow drivers to regain their licenses if they enrolled in a repayment plan proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown, which would cut their debts in half. Hertzberg’s measure would reduce the debt further, to 20 percent, for those with the lowest incomes.
Previous legislation to reduce traffic-ticket debts and restore licenses has stalled because of fiscal objections. In Wednesday’s report, the Lawyers’ Committee said the current system is costing the state more money than it saves, with drivers running up more than $10 billion in unpaid debts.
“Without a license, I can’t work,” one unnamed traffic debtor was quoted as saying. “Without work, I can’t pay my fines to get my license back.”
That means less employment, lower incomes and tax revenues, more spending on welfare and other social programs, and more unlicensed drivers, whose collision costs are often born by license-holders and their insurers, the report said.
Criminal defendants and ex-convicts also suffer under the system, the report said, because courts have suspended their licenses for failing to pay fines and fees from their convictions, even if the charges had nothing to do with driving. The study cited “Joseph,” who became a law-abiding citizen after his fourth drug conviction in 2011, got a good job with a delivery company, then lost his driver’s license and his job four years later because of failure to pay a fine — which now totals more than $8,000 — related to his 2011 conviction.
“By imposing fees that cannot be paid and effectively creating permanent license suspensions,” the report said, “the system is increasing crime and decreasing public safety.”
Bob Egelko is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: Twitter: @egelko