You shouldn’t lose your job over a traffic ticket

Original article appeared in the Los Angeles Daily News.

By the Editorial Board

For most people, flashing police lights in the rearview mirror mean an unwanted traffic ticket and fine.
But if you can barely pay the rent, or the baby sitter or even the light bill, that ticket has another meaning.
It could cost you your job, or even get you thrown in jail.
The system needs to be fixed.
Say, for instance, you get pulled over for making a so-called California stop.
The ticket is $35 but with court fees and other costs tacked on the final price tag is $238 (up from $155 about a decade ago).
If you can’t pay or don’t show up for your court date, it can be disastrous.
In California, that’s a misdemeanor — even if your excuse is that you can’t pay. Your licence is automatically suspended.
Worse, if you get caught driving while it’s suspended, say, to get to work, you could be arrested.
That means there’s a real possibility you could lose your job — either because you can’t get to work, or because you drive for a living. One study found that among those receiving welfare, a driver’s licence was a better predictor of whether you had a job than a GED.
This may sound extreme to somebody who can afford to pay $300 or so per ticket, but in the poorest areas of Southern California this is a fact of life.
When your financial stability is that shaky, it’s easy for things to snowball.
California Sen. Robert Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, estimates about 600,000 people had their licence suspended for either not paying traffic fines or not showing up for court dates.
The people who tend to suffer the worst consequences are blacks and Latinos.
The disparity is startling, shows a recent report from a civil rights association. When license suspensions are overlaid on a map of poverty and race, it’s clear who is hurt most by this system.
Between 2013 and 2015 the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department arrested and charged 20,000 for suspended licenses. Only 15 percent were white. Overall, a third of those who were arrested in the county for a suspended license are black, yet they make up only 9 percent of the population.
Hertzberg’s Senate Bill 881 seeks to remove the automatic suspension of licences for failure to appear or pay.
It’s a companion to his bill last year which allowed drivers to contest tickets without having to pay the fine and complements a ticket amnesty program by Gov. Jerry Brown.
But it doesn’t get violators off the hook for the fine. Agencies can still collect, and wages can be garnished.
The bill also excludes cases where drugs or alcohol are involved.
There are administrative issues that the legislative analyst raised flags about. For instance, the Department of Motor Vehicles assigns points to traffic violations. Each offense brings a certain number of points; too many points, and your licence is suspended. That system should stay intact so that repeat offenders don’t get off without penalty.
This can’t be a free ride for anyone. Rather it should create a more equitable and fitting punishment for a traffic violation.
The bill has passed the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee and should get to the full floor where, if the point system is preserved, it deserves support.
Trapping people into a debt spiral by taking away their keys doesn’t help the economy or communities.
This legislation could be the fix-it ticket.