Dangerous driving behaviors don’t just result in accidents. Getting caught red-handed by California traffic authorities usually result in the issuance of tickets and having to pay certain fines and penalties. Indeed, whenever a driver commits a violation, points are added to his or her driving record. For instance, a point is assigned to someone ticketed for making an unsafe lane change or got involved in an at-fault accident. Two points are assigned to someone ticketed for driving recklessly, leaving the scene of the accident without stopping (hit-and-run), driving under the influence, or driving while his or her driver’s license is either suspended or revoked.
Also, whenever a driver is ticketed for either an infraction or a misdemeanor offense, he or she has the option to pay the ticket (pay the corresponding fine) or contest it (appear in court). But then, not all drivers are able to pay the fine on time due to financial constraints. What happens is that more penalties and fines are imposed, including the potential of getting their driver’s licenses suspended. The ongoing policy of license suspensions for unpaid tickets, however, have been seen as disproportionately impacting people with lower income, as a recent report released last April 8, 2015 showed.
According to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights (LCCR) of the San Francisco Bay Area, which is responsible for the said report, an estimated 4.2 million drivers in California—accounting to 1 in 6 drivers—“do not have valid driver’s license because they cannot afford to pay traffic fines and fees.” Titled “Not Just a Ferguson Problem: How Traffic Courts Drive Inequality in California,” this report comes right after the Department of Justice Civil Rights Division released its own findings regarding Ferguson, Missouri courts and law enforcement agencies and how their similar practice of suspending driver’s licenses for unpaid tickets disparately affects not just low-income individuals, but also people of color.
The situation in California goes like this: whenever an individual fails to appear in court (when fighting the ticket) or pay the fine (when paying the ticket), his or her driver’s license is suspended. Not only that, but an additional $300 civil assessment is added to the total amount of the fine. Thus the impact of court-ordered debt and license suspensions; since driver’s licenses are become a requirement in low- and middle-income jobs, drivers with suspended licenses cannot possibly do work, let alone pay whatever’s needed to be paid in fines and penalties.
Even if they do pay on a monthly basis, they stop paying, knowing that they cannot claim back their license. As a result, the State of California has an uncollected court-ordered debt of over $10 billion, according to the recently released figures from the Legislative Analyst’s Office.
Meanwhile, the report also proposed certain solutions, primarily the call to end the practice of suspending driver’s licenses “as a collection tool for citation-related debt.” In addition, the report also suggested that the fines being enforced be lowered by half, as well as the court base the assessment of the fines based on the violators’ ability to pay.