For many low-income people, a single traffic ticket can become a nightmare.
Back in 2010, Hayward resident Henry Washington was often driving to visit his disabled brother in Fairfield in Solano County. When he was pulled over for running a red light, he couldn’t produce his registration because he said he hadn’t been able to pay to get the required smog testing. Washington’s only income was from a General Assistance grant, so he was also unable to afford the $129 ticket he was issued. Eventually his license was suspended from his failure to pay. Yet he really needed to be able to drive his disabled brother to medical appointments, visit his family in Vallejo, and look for work. Lots of jobs require a valid license even if the position does not involve driving. This single traffic ticket put his life on hold for years.
This past June, a coalition of nonprofits filed suit against Solano County, naming Henry Washington as plaintiff, along with Rubicon Programs and the American Civil Liberties Union, challenging the county’s practice of using license suspensions to collect unpaid traffic fines. 28 other Californian counties also received letters from the coalition, alerting them that their policy of suspending driver’s licenses for failure to pay is unconstitutional and violates the rights of low-income drivers.
Direct services organizations such as Bay Area Legal Aid and the Lawyers Committee For Civil Rights were driving forces behind this lawsuit. In her position as a consumer rights attorney at Bay Area Legal Aid, Claire Johnson Raba ’10 frequently encounters clients whose overwhelming traffic court debt stands in the way of getting out of poverty. While the Solano case has not been assigned a court venue yet, Raba said that many of the other counties, including San Francisco, have responded to advocacy by the coalition of non-profit organizations.
“It will be a beneficial resolution if we get the court to institute procedures for determining whether a driver has willfully failed to pay a fine before suspending a license,” she said. San Mateo County has agreed to notify people of their due process rights in the case of inability to pay. San Francisco has placed a moratorium on suspension and is working out a system for dealing with low-income drivers with outstanding fines.
She said another problem is that the courts don’t have a process for evaluating unjust suspensions that have already happened. Currently there is an amnesty program in effect in California, signed by Governor Brown last summer. Drivers who have old moving violation tickets can receive a reduction by 80% if their income is at poverty level or if they are on public benefits. While in the process of making payments, their licenses can be restored. But the program costs $50 and runs out in March 2017. There’s also an additional DMV reinstatement fee and right now, there is nothing stopping courts from suspending licenses again for new violations.
“We’re working with low income clients to access the amnesty program, and advocating with local counties and courts to try to get the $50 fine that clients need to pay in order to get traffic court amnesty processed,” Raba said. The need is extreme. Almost five million Californians have had their licenses suspended, just for moving violations, not for parking tickets or DUIs. Raba said that often a fine for a traffic ticket that goes unpaid can end up being $500 or $600 because each county levies additional fines and fees. “Then, if you miss your court date, there is a $300 administrative civil assessment fine,” she said. What’s punishing is that the court can assign the fines to the state franchise tax board, which can levy bank accounts or garnish wages to recover the fines and fees.
“As a consumer protection attorney, I was seeing these drivers with revoked licenses at our clinic, and the franchise tax board was wiping out their entire bank account. Regular exemption claims against garnishment don’t work if it is the government taking the money,” she explained. Just one unpaid ticket can create a cascade of problems. Perhaps someone loses their job because they can’t drive. Then they can’t make payments on their car and can’t get it insured because they don’t have a license. “It causes debt and unemployment, and can lead to homelessness,” she said.
For Raba, standing up for these drivers is just the latest case in a succession of social justice focused legal actions. While at UC Hastings, she completed the social justice concentration and competed on the trademark moot court team as a 2L, looking at consumer protection from a trademark perspective. Professor Piomelli’s group advocacy and systemic reform clinic was very influential for her career choice, as she went on to volunteer for nonprofit and legal aid organizations throughout Bay area. As an Equal Justice Works fellow at Bay Area Legal Aid, she assisted domestic violence survivors with consumer issues in a project that led to the creation of a consumer law practice area.
Now, she teaches a consumer law seminar at UC Hastings with Juliana Fredman ’11 that focuses on minorities, marginalized communities, and vulnerable populations, with an emphasis on practical application of consumer law statutes. The license suspension case is a perfect subject for the students. “These rates of suspensions due to a failure to appear or pay a ticket are directly correlated with poverty levels and with race,” Raba said.