More than 400,000 Californians had their driver’s licenses reinstated last month after an appeals court ruled that the state was illegally penalizing people who failed to appear in court on costly traffic tickets.
The lawsuit was part of a broader, ongoing effort by legal advocacy organizations to roll back California’s traffic fines and court fees, which they contend disproportionately impact low-income residents and communities of color.
More than three million traffic infraction citations are issued in California every year, averaging between $600 and $700 each.
State and local fees
California has among the highest traffic ticket penalties in the country due to a litany of state and county add-on fees. A ticket for running a red light — which has a base fine of $100 — actually costs nearly $500 because of state and local fees, and more than $800 if the driver misses a deadline to pay or appear in court.
The ruling “limits this blunt instrument of punishing people for not taking care of traffic tickets when in reality, for many Californians, traffic tickets are simply too expensive to take care of,” said Rebecca Miller, senior attorney at the Western Center on Law and Poverty, one of the organizations that sued the Department of Motor Vehicles.
“Like any state in the country, we have over-policing of lower-income and Black and brown communities in California.”
Several Bay Area residents sued the DMV in 2016 when their licenses were suspended after they failed to pay a traffic ticket or appear in court. Last June, a three-judge panel in the First Appellate District ruled in their favor, deciding that the state inappropriately suspended the licenses of drivers without formal notices from traffic courts that their failure to appear was willful.
As a result, the DMV lifted suspensions on 555,000 driver’s licenses. Because some had additional suspensions for other reasons, about 426,000 motorists were eligible to have their licenses reinstated, according to the DMV.
Legal aid groups — the Western Center on Law and Poverty, Bay Area Legal Aid, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area and the East Bay Community Law Center — represented the plaintiffs.
The lead plaintiff, Guillermo Hernandez of Richmond, had been ticketed in 2013 for not updating his driver’s license information and driving without a valid registration, court records show.
Hernandez said he tried to go to court to take care of the ticket but was told twice that clerks couldn’t find it in the system. It was only later when he tried to renew his license that he discovered there was a hold on it for more than $900 in fines and fees.
“At that time I just didn’t have the money. I didn’t have work. That’s a lot of money. … How am I going to pay it?’” he said, speaking in Spanish.
Hernandez had to cut back on his work buying and selling secondhand goods around the area. “I was afraid they would grab me and make me pay more money for tickets,” he said.
Hernandez said he’s glad he saw the lawsuit through the appeals court even after his attorney helped him get onto a repayment plan and get his license back before the case concluded.
The appellate opinion is somewhat narrow and technical: By law the DMV is supposed to suspend a license if it receives a notice from a traffic court that a driver “willfully” violated a written promise to appear in court, according to the opinion. The DMV argued that when it receives notices a driver failed to appear in court that indicates that the actions were willful. The trial court agreed, but the Appeals Court found that the DMV needed a more formal notice that a driver broke the law.
The DMV said in a statement to CalMatters that from now on it “will only impose a (failure to appear) suspension based upon misdemeanor (failure to appear) notifications submitted by the courts.”
But attorneys involved in the case said it’s too soon to tell how the case will affect license suspensions going forward.
Fees tacked onto traffic fines
Economic justice advocates and some government officials are examining court fines and fees as part of a national reckoning over racial disparities in the justice system. A growing body of data suggests black and brown drivers are more likely to be pulled over than white motorists, and they often face staggering bills for traffic tickets.
That’s because state and local governments have tacked on numerous fees that have nothing to do with traffic violations, said Martin Hoshino, the state Judicial Council’s administrative director, who served on a national task force regarding fines, fees and bail practices.
“It became unnerving to think that courts had been turned into revenue centers, and judicial officers were in this really awkward position of perhaps knowing they were imposing a fine or fee for which their court operation was benefiting. I think that’s wrong,” Hoshino said.
Records and interviews show fees in criminal court, including for traffic violations, have funded an array of services and projects in California, including court construction, DNA collection, emergency medical air transport and sunken vessel recovery off the coast.
“When you put all of the decisions together and look at it holistically 30 years later, you find out you’ve created a regressive, harmful, at times self-defeating revenue system because you’re pushing people into debt traps,” Hoshino said.
In addition, “you’re not able to collect the debt,” he said. Uncollected debt on court fines and fees doubled over the past decade to roughly $10 billion in California.
Stacey Kmetz knows about the burden of traffic ticket debt. The San Jose resident, who was out of work and sleeping on a friend’s couch, got a nearly $900 ticket in Marin County for driving without proof of insurance.
“I was really stuck. I asked everybody I knew for help,” Kmetz said.
When she didn’t appear in traffic court by the date on her citation, her license was suspended. Kmetz ultimately went to court and got a $78-a-month payment plan, records show. But the court did not notify the DMV to lift the suspension.
“I pleaded to have that license so I could pay my bills and look for work,” she said. “I was working with two temp agencies who wanted nothing to do with me when I explained the situation.”
Legal Aid attorneys stepped in and got the court to recall the failure-to-appear notification. Kmetz was able to get her license back in October after six months without it.
“It was terrible. The anxiety of the whole dilemma … it was awful,” she said, adding that she’s since used her license to work as a driver for some delivery apps.
“I feel really proud that I did something for society,” he said.
Pilot program to avoid court appearances
Lawmakers and court officials have taken some recent steps: They have eliminated license suspensions for failing to pay traffic tickets and developed payment plans.
The court system also developed a pilot project that makes it easier for low-income motorists to request a traffic ticket fee reduction. A website called MyCitations allows motorists to request a reduction online. The courts can consider a driver’s income and other information on their ability to pay before deciding whether to lower a penalty.
The virtual ticket system was created so that motorists wouldn’t have to appear in person at a courthouse if they wanted to get their ticket debt reduced.
Many Californians can’t afford a day off work to plead their case to a judge. But when they don’t pay and don’t show up at court, the fines increase, their licenses can be suspended and if they are caught driving on a suspended license, they face criminal charges.
“It’s the criminalization of poverty,” said Asher Waite-Jones, staff attorney and clinical supervisor at the East Bay Community Law Center.
The pilot project includes seven counties. Tulare, Shasta and Ventura counties launched the first year, San Francisco and Santa Clara counties are in year two and Fresno and Monterey counties are launching now.
From April 2019 through November 2020, nearly 7,000 drivers requested a fine and fee reduction through the pilot program. More than 85% of those drivers reported incomes below the poverty line and their debt was an average of 447 days outstanding, according to a recent report on the project the Judicial Council prepared for the Legislature. Three quarters of the requests were approved; the penalty was reduced an average of $347 per ticket, according to the report.
The governor’s current budget proposal includes money to bring the pilot system statewide. Ongoing funding would increase to $58.4 million by 2024-25.
“It’s been really important during the pandemic because it gives people a way to request a discount without going into traffic court,” said Anne Stuhldreher, director of the financial justice project in the San Francisco treasurer’s office. “We should be able to hold people accountable without putting them in financial distress.”
Stuhldreher and legal service attorneys suggest a better fix is doing away with many of the fees. Last year, lawmakers eliminated a number of fees levied in criminal court. Advocates are pushing them to do the same with traffic tickets.
When courts do reduce a driver’s ticket penalty, the amount varies, depending on the court and judge; the reduction can be 50% in some courts and 80% in others.
“Fifty percent is not necessarily meaningful to many of my clients who are homeless or completely destitute,” said Waite-Jones, the East Bay Community Law Center attorney.
The court system administrator, Hoshino, recommends more substantial changes from lawmakers.
But he also worries about how California will make up the revenue for vital services if the fees are slashed. The state collected $1.4 billion in court fines and fees — all cases, not just traffic-related — in 2018-19.
“If you’re going to remove $1.4 billion for state and local programs, you’re either going to end up abolishing those programs or you’re going to have to find alternatives,” Hoshino said.
CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.