Original article can be found in the East Bay Express.
By Sam Levin
The state’s initiative to help low-income drivers overcome excessive traffic court debts is failing the most vulnerable residents — and advocates say the East Bay courts’ policies are particularly unjust.
After losing his job as a fitness instructor, Clive Salmon spent most of 2013 living out of his car in Hayward. Struggling with homelessness and unemployment, his financial troubles worsened in April of that year when he received a traffic ticket for talking on his cellphone while driving in San Lorenzo. Unable to pay the $172 fine, he eventually received an additional $300 “failure to pay” civil assessment, and the Department of Motor Vehicles suspended his driver’s license. Combined with another ticket for “following too closely,” and a second failure-to-pay charge tied to that offense, he owed more than $1,000 to Alameda County Traffic Court by early 2014.
In a recent interview, Salmon said he has lost three job opportunities because he doesn’t have a driver’s license. “It’s really frustrating to know that the government is trying to get money from you, but at the same time, you’re not given an opportunity to earn money to pay them,” said Salmon, who is 43 years old and now lives in East Oakland. “I’m just trying to stay strong and hold my head up.”
Salmon is exactly the kind of person Governor Jerry Brown said he intended to help earlier this year when he signed into law a traffic “amnesty program” aimed at providing some relief for poor people saddled with insurmountable debts and suspended licenses. As part of that program, which launched October 1, people with traffic debts can get their licenses reinstated while they are in the process of making payments — instead of being stuck with a suspension until they pay off all of their debt. But when Salmon tried to apply for the amnesty program last week, AllianceOne — the for-profit company that handles debt collection services for Alameda County — gave him bad news: He could only get his license back if he made an upfront payment of $957 — nearly the full amount he owes from the two tickets.
According to the East Bay Community Law Center — a nonprofit that is assisting Salmon and provided me with documentation of his fines — his case illustrates one of many ways in which California’s amnesty program is failing the very people it is supposed to serve. In particular, the court systems in both Alameda and Contra Costa counties have implemented numerous policies that make the benefits of the program inaccessible to the East Bay’s poorest residents.
In April, California made national headlines when civil rights and legal aid groups published a damning report showing how courts trap people in poverty with exorbitant fines and fees for minor traffic infractions — and automatic license suspensions when they miss a payment or court date. The report estimated that 4.2 million people have lost their driving privileges as a result of these punitive policies, which disproportionately impact low-income people of color. Stuck with massive debts and suspended licenses, people lose jobs, miss medical appointments, struggle with childcare, and get more tickets and fines for driving without a license.
Brown, who described traffic court as a “hellhole of desperation” for low-income people, said his amnesty initiative would help remedy this crisis. Under the program, which ends March 31, 2017, people with unpaid traffic debts can get 50-percent reductions on the fines they owe. But that’s only if their tickets were due before January 2, 2013. Low-income residents — who receive certain public benefits or live below the federal poverty level — can receive 80 percent reductions on pre-2013 tickets. Defendants can also get their licenses reinstated if they are “in good standing” on a debt payment plan. People with tickets due after January 1, 2013 are not eligible for any debt reductions, but they can apply to get their licenses back while they’re making payments.
But the law does not define what it means to be “in good standing” on a payment plan and allows counties to establish specific policies. Advocates who pushed for amnesty said they expected courts to return licenses to anyone actively making payments. That means that people with payment plans — which could be $15 a month for a low-income person out of work — should get their licenses back if they’ve paid an installment. That would match the intent of the law and could also benefit the courts; if people can drive again, they’re much more likely to have income and be able to continue paying monthly dues.
But Alameda County Superior Court interpreted this portion of the amnesty law in a way that renders it meaningless for many people with large debts. The court only considers people to be in “good standing” if they pay off every single monthly payment they’ve missed. For Salmon, that means nearly his entire debt. That’s impossible for him, considering that he has no income and is also ineligible for any reduction because his tickets came after the 2013 cutoff. “You have to pay in full, which is not the purpose of the program,” said Alex Kaplan, an East Bay Community Law Center intern who helped Salmon call AllianceOne last week.
Robert Fleshman, a supervisor with the Judicial Council, the policymaking body of California courts, said he did not know of any other county that had instituted this portion of the amnesty program in such a strict way. The council wrote amnesty implementation guidelines and encouraged county courts to honor the anti-poverty goals of the law, he explained: “In those areas where it’s gray, be generous and compassionate.”
There are additional ways in which both Alameda and Contra Costa courts have disappointed advocates with their amnesty programs. All people seeking the 50- or 80-percent reductions in those counties must pay an upfront $50 participation fee. The amnesty law allows this, but also gives counties the option to waive the fee for low-income people. Los Angeles County Superior Court, for example, is waiving the fee for all participants who qualify for the 80-percent reduction, and San Francisco County’s Human Services Agency is covering the $50 fee for some low-income residents.
In an interview, I described Salmon’s case to Chad Finke, court executive officer for Alameda County Superior Court. Finke said the court could potentially reconsider its policy for determining whether a defendant is in “good standing” on a payment plan. “There doesn’t seem to be a uniform statewide definition,” he said. “Our staff originally interpreted ‘good standing’ to mean you make good on all the payments you missed. … Our court is willing to look at that again.” He said the $50 fee was necessary to cover costs of the program.
Contra Costa Superior Court, in theory, has a fairer license reinstatement policy than Alameda County. Defendants who pay one installment are considered in “good standing,” according to Contra Costa court spokesperson Mimi Zemmelman. But AllianceOne oversees this process and has made unreasonable payment demands, according to advocates. Adam Poe, a Richmond-based staff attorney with Bay Area Legal Aid Society, said that AllianceOne recently required one of his clients who owes thousands in traffic court debts to pay an $800 down payment to be in good standing. “The program itself is designed to give people with no money … an opportunity to get their license reinstated,” Poe said. “This defeats the entire purpose.”
Dana Isaac, an attorney with the San Francisco-based Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, said she also had a number of concerns about AllianceOne’s tactics in San Francisco. The debt collection company has incorrectly told clients that they aren’t eligible for the amnesty program when, in fact, they did qualify for a license reinstatement. She said it also appears that AllianceOne has set arbitrary payment plans in a way that could shut out low-income residents. The company told one of her clients that she would have to pay $100 per month on an amnesty payment plan — a rate the woman could not afford. When the client called back hours later and got a different representative, she was able to get a $25 per month agreement. “Having an attorney or advocate on the phone with you makes a huge difference,” Isaac added.
The state Office of the Attorney General last month issued a consumer alert warning that debt collection companies were spreading misinformation about the amnesty program, but a spokesperson declined to identify the vendors. AllianceOne is one of the most commonly used companies across the state for traffic court debt collection. AllianceOne spokesperson Mark Pfeiffer did not respond to multiple phone calls and emails requesting comment for this report.
Attorneys throughout the Bay Area said they were also frustrated that people with tickets in multiple counties have to navigate different systems. Many have to pay $50 participation fees for each county and also have to set up separate payment plans with each court — even if AllianceOne is the collector responsible for all of their tickets. Advocates said it is common for Bay Area residents to have unpaid tickets in multiple counties. That’s because many end up getting caught driving with a suspended license and also due to the fact that many Black drivers are subject to racially biased police stops and thus more likely to rack up numerous tickets for minor offenses.
Even if county courts and AllianceOne implemented the amnesty program in a way that was fairer and simpler, the initiative still has many shortcomings, advocates said. For people with post-2013 tickets, courts and debt collectors are still refusing to consider people’s ability to pay when setting the initial fines, which means the system continues to disproportionately hurt the poor. And if the courts continue to punish debtors with license suspensions, regardless of their financial situation, low-income drivers will continue to get caught in a cycle of poverty. Critics of the system have pushed for legislation that would require courts to implement sliding-scale fines based on people’s income and integrate community service alternatives into traffic court hearings.
“The most troubling thing about amnesty is that it doesn’t get at the underlying problem of license suspensions,” said Mari Castaldi, program coordinator with East Bay Community Law Center. “In another year’s time, there’s going to be another half million people across the state who have their licenses suspended.”