Paying More for Being Poor – Bias and Disparity in California’s Traffic Court System

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: May 4, 2017

Media Contact: Elisa Della-Piana/ Legal Director, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area; (510) 847-3001  / edellapiana@lccr.com

Poverty and Race Drive License Suspensions, Arrests for Being Too Poor to Pay 

New study exposes California’s high traffic fines and fees, stark racial bias

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – Millions of individuals and families across the country are being unfairly punished for being too poor to pay traffic and infraction tickets for minor violations such as jaywalking or expired registration tags. And the price they most often pay, driver license suspension, releases a cascade of problems, such as loss of jobs and homes, that drive them deeper into the clutches of poverty, frequently lead to incarceration, and severely impede their ability to participate in and contribute to their communities.

A new study released today by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, Paying More for Being Poor: Bias and Disparity in California’s Traffic Court System, shows that Californians pay some of the highest fines and fees in the country – more than three times the national average for running a red light, for example. The high fines and fees create hardships for many middle-class Californians, but they can devastate the lives of Californians with lower incomes.

Because of over-policing in communities of color and racial profiling, African-American and Hispanic individuals are more likely to receive traffic tickets than white and Asian individuals and are far more likely to be cited for driving without a license without also being cited for an observable offense. But new Bay Area data also reveals that African-Americans are four to sixteen times more likely to be booked into county jail on a charge related to inability to pay a citation.

One of the recommendations in the report is to establish a process for assessing fines and fees based on ability to pay and allowing voluntary community service in lieu of monetary payments. While opponents of such plans argue that they would deprive the state of much-needed revenue, the California Traffic Tickets / Infractions Amnesty Program—which ended on April 30, 2017—collected over three times more delinquent debt per case ($151 per income-sensitive amnesty case) than other court-ordered delinquent debt collections ($45 per case).

“Now that the traffic amnesty program has ended, there is no longer a pathway for people who cannot afford to pay fines to pursue license reinstatement. Californians lose the ability to legally drive—and often their jobs along with it—as punishment for being unable to pay the highest fines in the country. We need a statewide system to make the fines fit a person’s ability to pay,” stated Elisa Della-Piana, Legal Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.

The Paying More for Being Poor report was made possible through funding from Silicon Valley Community Foundation, which advocates for public policies that promote fairness and equity. “It’s unconscionable that California’s high fines and misguided policies effectively punish low-income people and people of color more harshly than their peers. An unpaid jaywalking ticket shouldn’t lead to the loss of a license or the loss of a job,” said Emmett D. Carson, CEO and president of Silicon Valley Community Foundation. “We are proud to partner with LCCR on this report, and we hope to see legislation passed that will correct inequities in the state’s fines and fees system.”

As civil legal aid organizations face potentially deep federal funding cuts, low-income Californians will find it increasingly difficult to obtain legal representation to challenge license suspension and arrest due to inability to pay fines and fees.

Other recommendations in the report include to stop suspending driver licenses for failure to pay and to stop arresting Californians on infraction warrants for failure to pay or for driving on a license that is suspended for failure to pay.

California has the opportunity to create permanent reforms to this inequitable system and to be a leader by implementing several policies that are being adopted in other parts of the country. Governor Jerry Brown has come out in favor of reform, and in his budget, proposes to put an end to suspending driver licenses just because someone cannot afford to pay.

Bills currently making their way through the California Legislature would address many of the disparities documented in Paying More for Being Poor.  SB 185 (Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys) would overhaul the court debt and license suspension system for indigent traffic defendants. AB 412 (Ting, D-San Francisco) would stop courts from imposing $300 civil assessments (an extra penalty fine) on people who can’t afford to pay tickets in traffic court.

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Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, founded in 1968, works to advance, protect, and promote the legal rights of communities of color, low-income persons, immigrants, and refugees. Assisted by hundreds of pro bono attorneys, LCCR provides free legal assistance and representation to individuals on civil legal matters through direct services, impact litigation, and policy advocacy.

Also see previous reports from the Lawyers’ Committee of San Francisco, produced in cooperation with Back on the Road California* (BOTRCA), a consortium of civil legal aid organizations: