Image by Dushan Milic
In August 2012, Gloria Mata Alvarado developed stomach cramps while her husband was driving her to a doctor’s appointment. To relieve the pain, she unbuckled her seat belt. When the Los Angeles policeman who stopped their car asked why, Alvarado explained that she had gastritis, a genuine medical condition. “That’s what everyone says,” the officer replied, issuing her a citation for a seat belt violation.
The Los Angeles Superior Court fined Alvarado $712. That was almost half the monthly income she and her husband, who is also disabled, receive in fixed retirement and disability payments, so the judge reduced the fine to $600. After Alvarado explained that this sum would also be impossible for the couple to pay, the judge ordered the Department of Motor Vehicles to suspend her license.
On August 2, 2016, the Western Center on Law and Poverty filed a lawsuit to stop the Los Angeles Superior Court from suspending the driver’s licenses of Alvarado and another named plaintiff—and by extension tens of thousands of others who are unable to pay hefty court fines and fees.
“Suspended licenses take a tremendous toll on poor people, especially in places like Los Angeles, where it is difficult for them to access public transportation,” says Michael Herald, policy advocate of the nonprofit law firm. “Without a driver’s license, people can’t get to work, take their children to school, or get to medical appointments.”
The lawsuit alleges that the court violates drivers’ due process rights under both the U.S. and California constitutions by stripping them of their ability to fight license suspensions.
“There are no remedies for our clients once they get suspensions for failure to pay the fines,” Herald explains in an interview. “The cost of these tickets is enormous because, like other states, California is looking for ways to balance its budget, so lawmakers have imposed additional fees and surcharges on the basic fees.”
As a result, he notes, a $100 violation now costs nearly $500 because of the surcharges and fees. Moreover, “if a person misses an initial payment deadline, the cost of the ticket increases to $800 or more, making it difficult for a poor person to feed his family and keep a roof over their heads.”
The lawsuit follows a lengthy report issued in April which found that African American and Latino Californians are disproportionately more likely to have their driver’s licenses suspended and face arrest as a result of traffic stops.
Using public records from the California Department of Motor Vehicles, Back on the Road California, a coalition of civil legal aid organizations, found that nearly half of the people arrested for driving with suspended licenses in San Francisco were African Americans, even though blacks make up only 5.8 percent of the population.
In Los Angeles, where African Americans account for 9.2 percent of the population, they made up 33 percent of all arrests from September 2013 to September 2015.
Titled “Stopped, Fined, Arrested—Racial Bias in Policing and Traffic Courts in California,” the report showed that other sentencing options like community service were also out of reach for poor people, including Toneshawa Jones, the second plaintiff in the Western Center’s lawsuit. Jones was homeless and couldn’t afford the sign-up fees for community service in lieu of a $929 fine.
“The entire system of handling license suspensions is dysfunctional and must be changed,” says Herald, “because it has become the closest thing we have to a debtors’ prison in California.”
Suspensions of driver’s licenses for fines that are impossible to pay are a national phenomenon, and may be tied to tragic encounters between the police and minority drivers in Minnesota, Missouri, and other states.
Philando Castile, a thirty-two-year old cafeteria worker, had been pulled over at least forty-nine times over a thirteen-year-period by police in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area before he was killed on July 6 in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, by a police officer who had stopped his car for a cracked taillight.
Michael-John Voss, co-founder of the ArchCity Defenders, a nonprofit law firm based in St. Louis, Missouri, says he’s seen clients ticketed and threatened with revocation “because they had not subscribed to the town sanitation service, their homes had chipped paint, or other offenses that had nothing to do with traffic safety.” And when clients unable to pay fail to appear in court, they face additional fines and penalties, increasing their debt and anxiety.
According to Voss, one client spent more than thirty days in jail over an unpaid traffic ticket she received fifteen years earlier. In 2014, ArchCity Defenders published a white paper describing abusive court and law enforcement practices in the St. Louis region.
“About thirty of the sixty courts we studied engaged in at least one practice that violated the fundamental rights of poor people,” Voss says. “We also found that in some municipalities, like Ferguson, the goal was to collect fees and revenue, not dispense justice in license suspensions cases.”
In 2013, Ferguson collected $2.6 million in court fines and fees, mainly on traffic violations and other low-level municipal offenses. This sum was 21 percent of the city’s total budget, and its second largest source of income.
“These fines and fees took a terrible toll on residents of Ferguson, 22 percent of whom had incomes under the federal poverty level,” Voss says. In 2013, he notes, nearly 25,000 warrants were issued, “which was amazing considering the population of Ferguson was only 21,000.”
The report also showed that police in some communities were under intense pressure to write tickets, to benefit the municipality that paid their salary. Under Missouri law, officers can charge the same driving offense as a municipal violation, a county violation, or a state misdemeanor. Fines paid on municipal ordinance violations go directly to the municipality.
“One chief was so eager to increase revenue from traffic tickets that he included a note to officers with their paychecks urging them to issue more tickets,” Voss says.
After Ferguson erupted following the August 2014 shooting of Michael Brown, area policymakers took steps toward reform. Ferguson created a new docket to address the concerns of people struggling to pay fines. Velda City offered to dismiss up to nine pending traffic cases upon payment of $300. And the city of Jennings agreed to make a “meaningful inquiry into a person’s ability to pay a monetary fine.”
“Although these changes are important, they won’t solve the problem,” Voss says. “The only true path to reform that will change the lives of poor people and African Americans in the St. Louis region is to establish a full-time regional court to replace the eighty-one part-time municipal courts, which have conflicts of interest and are not properly monitored.”
You don’t have to be a bad driver to lose your ability to drive. A 2013 survey of state laws by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators found that nearly four of every ten suspended licenses were for “social non-conformance reasons.”
“When driver’s licenses were first instituted, suspensions were given to remove dangerous drivers from the road, to change drivers’ behavior, and to punish unsafe drivers,” says Ian Grossman, the association’s vice president. “But in recent years, states have passed laws to punish people for bad behavior like fuel theft, truancy, possession of alcohol by a minor, and possession of firearms.”
States as well as individuals are harmed by these suspensions. A New Jersey study found that 42 percent of suspended drivers lost their jobs, and nearly half of those people could not find other employment. Of those who did, most took a pay cut, eroding their ability to pay taxes and otherwise contribute to the economy.
Grossman calls on states to eliminate laws suspending licenses for social non-conformance offenses. This will “allow law enforcement to concentrate on those who lose their licenses for highway violations and cause most of the accidents.”
The Department of Justice has joined the growing chorus asking governments to reevaluate their practices for suspending driver’s licenses. The agency issued a letter in March outlining policy guidelines related to enforcement of court fines and fees. In addition to urging state and local courts to avoid using suspension of driver’s licenses as a debt collection tool, the department said suspension should be reserved only for cases that increase public safety.
States are also tackling the problem. Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson in January proposed a new statewide program to allow Washington drivers to set up consolidated affordable payment plans to pay traffic-based fines and monetary obligations. More than 380,000 Washingtonians have suspended or revoked driver’s licenses, more than 5 percent of the state’s population. A significant number of suspensions are solely the result of failure to pay fines.
In March, Massachusetts Governor Charles Baker, a Republican, signed a bill that replaced most of a 1989 tough-on-crime measure that automatically suspended the driver’s licenses of persons convicted of drug offenses. Approved unanimously by the legislature, the law includes exceptions for people convicted of serious drug trafficking and for those convicted for driving under the influence of drugs.
And in May, Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, signed a driver’s license restoration bill that will automatically expunge tickets at no cost for those who have a noncriminal license suspension before 1990. Drivers whose licenses were suspended due to unpaid traffic tickets from 1991 to 2012 will be able to pay off their fines for just $30.
Sharon Johnson is the senior correspondent of Women’s eNews, an electronic news service based in New York City. This article was originally published in the October 2016 issue.