Unfair Traffic Tickets Put the Poor in a Hole; a Proposed Law Could Fix That

Here's a proposed law that's been a long time coming.

State Sen. Bob Hertzberg of Van Nuys this week announced that he has introduced a bill, SB 405, that would allow some drivers grounded by tickets to get their suspended licenses activated again.

More specifically, the legislation would allow drivers buried by traffic ticket debt to participate in Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed Traffic Amnesty Program, which seeks to erase nearly $10 billion in outstanding court-backed fines.

The lawmaker's announcement came after the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area released a report, "Not Just a Ferguson Problem — How Traffic Courts Drive Inequality in California," which concludes, "Millions of Californians do not have valid driver’s licenses because they cannot afford to pay citation fines and fees."

Hertzberg notes that $100 citations have ballooned to $500, and unpaid tickets will snowball to $800 and more. His office says that in one case, "A $25 ticket for failing to notify the DMV of an address change ... mushroomed to $2,900 ... because of an almost comical series of errors, address changes and delays."

If you have more than one ticket, of course, you're quickly into four figures. That might be fine if you're a Hollywood mogul, but if you're an average worker in Los Angeles County, where the median individual income $27,749, that's a true heartache.

The language of Hertzberg's bill puts it this way:

For many families, a driver's license suspension is the beginning of a descent into abject poverty for which there is no escape. Legal services advocates report that once a person gets his or her driver's license suspended in California, it is virtually impossible for the driver's license to be restored until all the unpaid fees, fines and assessments are completely paid. Many people with a suspended driver's license are low-income and can only pay the debt off a little at a time. Others are unemployed or on public assistance and cannot afford to make any payments. The state of New Jersey did a study of persons with suspended driver's licenses and found that 42 percent lost their jobs after their driver's licenses were suspended and less than half of them were able to find new jobs; 88 percent experienced a loss of income.

The lawyers' report says that the cost of paying for these tickets is often too much for the working masses, and so they get their licenses suspended. A statement from the committee says:

In addition to driving-related citations, infractions such as littering, sleeping outdoors and failure to pay a transit fare can result in excessive fines that, if unpaid, result in criminal warrants or suspended driver’s licenses and create a vicious cycle of poverty.

About 4.2 million Golden State motorists, more than the population of the city of Los Angeles, have had their licenses suspended from 2006 to 2013 because of failure to appear in court or failure to pay fines, Hertzberg's office says.

That's nearly one in five Californians.

He can afford it, right?
He can afford it, right?

It wasn't supposed to be this way, but traffic tickets have turned into a contemporary version of the debtors' prison.

The idea of tying driving privileges to fines was to compel people who have "committed a serious public-safety violation" to start driving right. But Hertzberg's bill says that "this rationale over time has been extended to hundreds of non–public safety violations."

The language of the proposal also challenges the outdated notion of driving as a privilege (and we love that):

Driving in California is often described as a privilege, but for millions of Californians it is an economic necessity. Each day millions of Californians take to the road to go to work, drop off their children at school and activities, go shopping, and visit family. Without the ability to drive, millions of families cannot afford to pay the cost of housing, pay utilities, put food on the table, afford clothing for their children or be able to save for retirement. In short, driving is a fundamental need of virtually every person in the state.

Amen. Pass this bill already.

Send feedback and tips to the author. Follow Dennis Romero on Twitter at @dennisjromero. Follow L.A. Weekly News on Twitter at @laweeklynews.


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