This is a state where a $25 fix-it ticket — not even a moving violation — can snowball into $1,000 worth of fines and a suspended driver's license within a matter of a few months.
Police, judges and political leaders can't begin to expect us to buy into the false concept of law, order and justice when the state of California routinely reams its people like this.
One lawmaker, at least, is trying to make it right.
Legislation by Sen. Bob Hertzberg of Van Nuys would halt automatic driver's license suspensions for those who don't show up in court to face minor cases, like what's described above. It also would stop suspensions for failure to pay fines in cases where a payment plan is set up.
The Senate Transportation and Housing Committee this week gave the bill, SB 881, its green light, Hertzberg's office says.
"We must restore common sense to our justice system," Hertzberg said. "This legislation stops a practice that we know is an excessively severe penalty for simply missing a court date or failing to pay a fine on time and gives offenders a chance to make amends without pulling the rug out from under them."
The bill "ends an overly harsh punishment that does not fit the offense and sends many people of modest means into a downward spiral that can result in losing a job or even ending up in jail," the lawmaker's office said in a statement.
About 612,000 Californians have suspended licenses as we speak. One study indicates that many of them will lose their jobs as a result.
Hertzberg says California's system of taking away driving privileges from those who fail to show up in court and pay exorbitant fines disproportionately affects people of color and the poor.
California is now "majority minority," with Latinos having surpassed whites as the largest racial or ethnic group. And, by one measure, California is the poorest state in the country.
If you ever read our semi-regular DUI and driver's license checkpoint reports, you'll notice that they very rarely take place in white or affluent areas such as L.A.'s Westside. South L.A., Koreatown, Hollywood, the East Valley and downtown-adjacent neighborhoods, all predominantly minority, are frequent haunts.
And if you've ever been to Los Angeles Superior Court's often-packed traffic hearings — where judges can rubber-stamp the word of the police without any healthy skepticism — you'd be able to count the white faces on one hand. Including the lawyers.
We have government-sanctioned highway robbery. The system of fining people and stripping them of drivers licenses amounts to a regressive tax on the poor masses.
Don't just take our word for it.
This week the Back on the Road California (BOTRCA) consortium released a report, "Stopped, Fined, Arrested — Racial Bias in Policing and Traffic Courts in California," which found "driver’s license suspension rates range as high as five times the state average" in black and Latino communities, according to a summary.
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You say white privilege is a myth? Certainly not white driving privileges.
"It is a misdemeanor offense to drive with a suspended license in California, even when the only reason for the suspension is an unpaid fine," says Elisa Della-Piana, legal director at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. "Law enforcement officers have discretion about whether to arrest someone on a warrant or driving on a suspended license for an unpaid ticket, and this new data shows that people of color — especially black people — are disproportionately arrested and impacted. It’s a modern-day form of debtors’ prison."
Hertzberg's bill will not apply to those who lost licenses for alleged reckless driving or driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
It's now headed to the Senate's Public Safety Committee. Godspeed.