Imagine if a doctor struggled to pay a small debt and as punishment the government took away his stethoscope. Or, if a ballerina owed money and was forced to surrender her toe shoes. Makes no sense, right?
Yet, here in California as many as 4 million citizens have had driver’s licenses suspended for reasons having little or nothing to do with vehicular safety. The state increasingly uses license-suspension as a tool and, in doing so, creates “cycles of poverty that are difficult if not impossible to overcome.”
That is the conclusion of a just-released report co-authored by five leading legal aid and civil rights groups. An offense as minimal as loitering can result in a fine that multiplies quickly if unpaid - often leading to a suspended license, lost employment and, before long, crippling debt.
Such scenarios create significant economic and social problems in California, where nearly a quarter of the state’s 38 million residents live in poverty. Uncollected court-ordered fees now total over $10 billion. In an ill-conceived effort to balance the books, California annually suspends over a half-million driver’s licenses for missed court dates or delinquent payments of fines and fees.
While the recent Justice Department probe in Ferguson, Missouri, got headlines for revealing a pattern of abuse through fees and arrest warrants in non-criminal cases, California has long engaged in similar efforts to feed state coffers. For example, a $100 base fine - say, for failure to carry proof of auto insurance - actually costs $490 with mandatory fees and assessments. If the initial deadline for the fine is missed, the total due soars to $815.
What began as a system of fines to punish bad behavior has gradually become a scheme to fund state programs. And whereas driver’s licenses were once suspended solely to keep unfit motorists off the roads, California now takes away driving privileges for such things as misplaced registration stickers, failure to report a change of address, failure to pay a bus fare - even for skipping school.
Whether it’s in California, Missouri or any other state, government actions such as these invariably have the greatest impact on the poor and otherwise disadvantaged. “The human cost of this practice is enormous,” said Meredith Desautels, a staff attorney at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. She notes that “a disproportionate burden is placed on communities of color, already unfairly targeted by law enforcement, and low-income people who don’t have the means to pay.”
Under Gov. Jerry Brown, California has overcome many of its financial problems. The state is in the vanguard of much progressive legislation, yet the scandalous process of exorbitant fees and license suspensions persists.
Desautels and her colleagues say reform efforts in California have gained bipartisan support but remain stalled because some lawmakers believe the cost of change is too steep.
Their report, titled “Not Just a Ferguson Problem - How Traffic Courts Drive Inequality in California,” suggests that California restructure its debt collection process and end the use of license suspensions. Additionally, the authors urge creation of a formula by which more than 4 million residents with suspended licenses can have their driving privileges restored.
Included in the report are numerous case studies of crippling effects from the current system of fines, fees and suspensions. Typical is Alyssa, a bus driver, who received a ticket for not notifying the DMV when her address changed. She corrected the documents, but failed to pay the $25 fine. Her license was suspended. She was fired by the bus company. Alyssa had to seek state aid to provide for her children. She is unable to pay her fine and penalty fees which now total $2,900.
That’s a crime. And Californians like Alyssa are the victims, not the villains.
Peter Funt is a writer and speaker