California governor: Driver's license penalty harms the poor

AP News
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Posted: Jan 28, 2017 3:11 PM
California governor: Driver's license penalty harms the poor

SARAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — When Aaron Cutchon was laid off from his job at an auto body shop, he could no longer afford to pay for two traffic tickets he got for driving in a carpool lane.

His license was suspended, and he had to stop attending classes at a Napa junior college where he was working toward an associate's degree.

New legislation in California supported by Gov. Jerry Brown would eliminate such a dilemma by forbidding courts from taking licenses from people just because they can't pay their fines.

State Sen. Robert Hertzberg introduced a bill this week that would ban the practice. Brown and Hertzberg say the current policy disproportionately targets low-income Californians and can send people into a cycle of job losses and more poverty.

"What we've learned is it ruins people's lives," said Hertzberg, a Democrat from Van Nuys. "The privilege of driving should not be connected with the size of your wallet."

Cutchon, 35, said his two tickets have snowballed from roughly $900 to about $2,000 because of added fines and fees. He found a new job at a warehouse but said he doesn't make enough to pay off the tickets and can't get a higher-paying job because he doesn't have a license. The money he does make goes toward rent and taking care of his three children, said Cutchon, who lives in Cordelia, an area that overlaps the Bay Area city of Fairfield.

"I'm kind of stuck, in a sense, with this job," Cutchon said.

Theresa Zhen, an attorney at the East Bay Community Law Center in Berkeley, said she often sees clients who are limited to low-paying jobs because of suspended licenses.

"People's lives are unraveled by one traffic ticket," Zhen said.

The issue garnered national attention after the U.S. Department of Justice found similar laws in Ferguson, Missouri, burdened poor residents with "crippling" debt, according to a 2015 report.

In California, about 613,000 people had suspended driver's licenses for unpaid traffic tickets or missing related court appearances as of August 2015, the most recent number the department could provide, DMV spokesman Artemio Armenta said.

In his state budget proposal this month, Brown called for ending the practice, saying "there does not appear to be a strong connection" between the license suspensions and collecting unpaid fines.

"Often, the primary consequence of a driver's license suspension is the inability to legally drive to work or take one's children to school," the Democratic governor wrote.

Hertzberg said his new bill, SB185, prevents courts from suspending someone's license simply because they can't afford to pay. He said he agreed to drop a similar proposal last year after the Department of Finance asked for more time to study the idea.

Opponents have argued removing the penalty would eliminate a tool to help the state collect traffic fines. The California State Association of Counties and the California Police Chiefs Association declined to comment on the governor's proposal, although they opposed Hertzberg's previous plan, which was part of early versions of the 2016 bill SB881.

SB881 "eliminates any incentive for individuals to pay outstanding debt for traffic violations they received and failed to pay," the California Association of Counties wrote in a June letter to Hertzberg. The group noted that those affected would still have "burdensome court-ordered debt that they cannot afford to pay."

Supporters say there are other, more effective ways to collect fines, including putting people on payment plans and garnishing their wages.

The state's finance agency does not have an estimate for how much the governor's proposal might cost because license suspension is one of many collection methods and courts have not shown license suspensions lead to more collections.

Hertzberg's new bill comes more than a year after California started an amnesty program to help low-income people pay traffic tickets by reducing fines for those who are too poor to pay them and allowing some residents to have their licenses reinstated. A report on its first nine months found more than 175,000 accounts have been resolved and courts have collected more than $18 million through the amnesty program, which is scheduled to end in March.

Hertzberg said his proposed law would help people whose licenses or permits have been suspended because they can't afford to pay, but it won't let dangerous drivers off the hook.

"If you're a bad driver, you still lose your license," Hertzberg said. "But if you're a poor driver and you can't afford to pay, you don't lose your license."