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Echoes of Ferguson: Calif. traffic fines hit minorities hard, report finds

More than 4 million Californians do not have valid driver’s licenses because they cannot afford to pay traffic fines and fees, according to the report.

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    Motorists on Route 101 in California on Tuesday. A new report finds that more than 4 million Californians are without a valid driver's license because of traffic court fines and fees they cannot afford to pay.
    Damian Dovarganes/AP
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One month after the US Department of Justice documented deep patterns of discrimination by law enforcement in Ferguson, Mo., a report released Wednesday in California reveals statewide traffic court policies that “disproportionately impact people of color.”

More than 4 million Californians do not have valid driver’s licenses because they cannot afford to pay traffic fines and fees, the report finds. Infractions such as littering or sleeping outdoors can also result in steep fines and, if unpaid, a suspended driver's license or criminal warrant.

The report chronicles in detail how these suspensions make it harder for people to get and keep jobs, further impeding their ability to pay their debt. These practices keep people in “long cycles of poverty that are difficult, if not impossible to overcome," according to "Not Just a Ferguson Problem: How Traffic Courts Drive Inequality in California.” 

Prepared by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, the report draws striking parallels to the problems uncovered in Missouri.

“As in Ferguson, these policies disproportionately impact people of color, beginning with who gets pulled over in the first place,” the report says. “Recent San Diego and Sacramento data show that African-American people were two to four times more likely to get pulled over for a traffic stop than white people; Hispanic people were also disproportionately stopped and searched.”

In San Francisco, African-Americans account for more than 70 percent of those seeking legal assistance for driver's license suspensions, even though they represent only 6 percent of the city's population. 

Moreover, "people with African-American sounding names are significantly less likely to get job interviews than white people with the same resume," the report notes. "Existing employment barriers based on race should not be exacerbated by court policies that further deprive people of jobs and employment prospects.”

Meredith Desautels, lead author of the report, says the main take-away from the report is that “the use of license suppression as a tool to enforce payment of fines is a failed policy." She adds, "It simply hasn’t worked and drives people into poverty in a way they can’t get out.”

The report fleshes out its message with examples:

  • Tammi had not been pulled over in years, so she was perplexed when she received a notice from the Department of Motor Vehicles saying that her license had been suspended because of unpaid fines. She went to court, where a clerk informed her that she owed more than $3,500 for several unpaid traffic tickets. Tammi faced the prospect of having her credit damaged and her license suspended indefinitely.
  • Andrew, a single father in his early 20s, was working as a mechanic and making regular installment payments to the court on a couple of traffic tickets. A few months into the payments, his 2-year-old son was diagnosed with leukemia. As his son’s sole caregiver, Andrew had to leave his job to tend to his son. His sudden loss of income meant that he could not meet the terms of his payment plan, and the court suspended his driver’s license. The court refused to hear his case unless he paid the full fine amount, and he was told he could not get a license until the full amount was paid, even if he resumed making installment payments.
  • Sam received two driving-related tickets in the past two years – one in San Francisco and one in Oakland. He was not able to pay either ticket and, further, was unable to appear for his court date because he was participating in a program that required him to stay at a rehabilitation facility. He was previously employed as a chef, but since his license suspension, he has been rejected by multiple restaurants after initial offers of employment. As a result, he is now on general assistance, paid by county funds.

The report also proposes solutions such as widespread amnesty at the outset, followed by a loosening of the fine structure and sentencing guidelines. But the state’s independent legislative analyst has rejected a limited amnesty plan proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown (D) on the grounds that it could “negatively affect future collections.”

Still, Mike Herald, legislative advocate for Western Center on Law and Poverty in Sacramento, is hopeful that a compromise proposal would work – a plan that would allow people to get their licenses back if they first agree to a payment plan.

Constitutional scholars say the public needs to understand that the practices pass constitutional muster.

“While explicit and deliberate discrimination against people on the basis of their poverty is probably unconstitutional, that is different than neutral laws that apply to everybody that happen to be much more onerous on poor people in their effect,” says Jesse Choper, a constitutional specialist at the University of California's Berkeley School of Law, in an e-mail. “Unless this deprives people of what the court finds to be a fundamental right – such as the right to vote – these are not unconstitutional.”

“When you think about it, many, many laws and regulations are much harder on the poor than the wealthy, bus fares for example, but they [aren't] unconstitutional," he adds.

In response, Ms. Desautels says the issue is a statutory and policy matter that – beyond the discriminatory concerns – is damaging to state and local jurisdictions economically.

California has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation. “So many people are struggling to make ends meet that this is only driving more people onto the welfare rolls [and] taking away the tax income they might generate," Desautels says.

"Political leaders have to realize this is not good for anyone and do something about it," she adds.

Others say the data generated by the report should draw even more attention to the subject of racism.

“The outrageous and financially lucrative use of the jails and courts to shake down mostly minority drivers in Ferguson and California and many other cities and states for unpaid fines is a national disgrace,” says Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Roundtable and author of a dozen books about the black experience in America.

“It's tantamount to the debtor and pauper prisons in old times," he adds. "This is an issue that screams for state and local officials to take a hard look at and change. Without action, it assures that the poor and minorities will continue to be trapped in an ever-downward spiral of poverty, violence, and despair."

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