Thursday, March 24, 2016

Legal Coalition Demands Traffic Court Policy Changes

The San Mateo County Superior Court was put on notice on this week to “satisfy its constitutional and statutory duties.”

By Sydney Johnson
Thu, Mar 24, 2016 at 2:07 PM

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLC) announced this week that a coalition of legal organizations submitted a notice to a Bay Area court, demanding changes in the driver’s license suspension policy for people who cannot afford to pay exorbitant traffic fines.

“What used to be a hundred dollar violation in California now costs nearly five hundred dollars, and the costs climb into the thousands when people miss deadlines to pay fees they can’t afford,” Bay Area Legal Aid attorney Claire Johnson Raba said in a statement. “Many jobs require a driver’s license, so the loss of a license pushes families deeper into the cycle of unemployment and poverty.”

click to enlarge San Mateo County Courthouse - JIMMY EMERSON/ FLICKR (CC)
  • JIMMY EMERSON/ FLICKR (CC)
  • San Mateo County Courthouse
The demand letter, which was sent to San Mateo County Superior Court by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area (LCCR), Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, the Western Center on Law & Poverty, and the ACLU of Northern California, outlines what the traffic court must do in order to “satisfy its constitutional and statutory duties.” Included in the demands is to install a system to determine people’s ability to pay, provide information on how to access that system, and to appropriately adjust payment plans according to a person’s financial needs.

According to the letter, if the court does not comply by April 4, it will face legal action.

“The denial of due process in traffic court is causing widespread debt and unemployment. By not taking people’s ability to pay into account, the courts are hurting families, communities, and the state as a whole,” said ACLU of Northern California staff attorney Micaela Davis, in the announcement.

Last year, a report titled “Not Just a Ferguson Problem: How Traffic Courts Drive Inequality in California” was released outlining how California courts lay out billions in traffic fines, have suspended more than four million of drivers’ licenses for the fines that go unpaid, and, as a result, have trapped many into a cycle of poverty. The report also highlighted how license suspensions disproportionately impacts people of color in California.

“These exorbitant traffic fines are part of a larger pattern in which our justice system funds itself off the backs of poor people,” Brittany Stonesifer, staff attorney at Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, said in the press release. “Because racial profiling makes police stops and traffic citations commonplace in communities of color, this practice hits people of color the hardest.”

In response, Governor Jerry Brown established the "amnesty program" in October to provide relief for low-income people struggling with debt and license suspensions. However, experts still agree much more work is needed to improve both the program and the court’s method of handling traffic citations.

“Amnesty does nothing to prevent thousands of Californians from currently being caught up in the same web of traffic debt and license suspensions,” Antionette Dozer, senior attorney at Western Center on Law & Poverty, said in the press release.

“Anyone who got a ticket after January 1, 2013 is at best only partially eligible for amnesty,” the announcement reads. “They are ineligible for a reduction in what they owe, and even if they can get their license back, courts are still allowed to suspend their license again if they miss a payment.”

Joined by Bay Area Legal Aid, the coalition also sent a letter earlier this week urging the California Judicial Council “to instruct all California traffic courts to stop suspending the driver’s licenses of people who are too poor to pay exorbitant traffic fines.” In addition, the coalition requested a meeting with the Contra Costa County Superior Court to discuss similar issues, and have engaged in collaborating with Alameda County Superior Court as well.

“We need to take much bolder action by stopping the suspension of licenses and by significantly reducing the traffic fines on low income families” said Dozer. “Courts can do that right now but they are failing to do so.”

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