Ever been before an L.A. traffic judge? Each weekday morning outside the Metropolitan Courthouse on Hill Street, there's a long line of people of color waiting to get reamed. 

A spring report by the Back on the Road California (BOTRCA) consortium found “driver’s license suspension rates range as high as five times the state average” in black and Latino communities. No surprise there.

But the thing is, courts in California aren't supposed to be suspending driver's licenses because you can't pay for a ticket. And those who can't pay often are minorities.

The Western Center on Law and Poverty is suing L.A. County Superior Court on behalf of two low-income motorists who lost their driving privileges over their inability to pay for traffic tickets.

The suit says, essentially, that L.A.'s court system has adopted a policy of allowing driver's license suspensions for nonpayment, despite a state law that says suspensions should be ordered only if someone has “willfully failed to pay” a legal fine.

“The license suspensions disproportionately affect communities like South Los Angeles, Compton, Long Beach, Lancaster and Palmdale – areas that are predominantly black and/or Latino and experience high rates of poverty,” the center said in a statement.

L.A. courts never gave motorists the opportunity to demonstrate whether lack of payment was willful or a matter of poverty, the law center argues.

One plaintiff, stopped for not having a front license plate, saw her life disintegrate as she lacked the ability to pay for her citation and could no longer drive, the lawsuit states. (We've seen a $25 fix-it ticket snowball into $1,000 in fines and ultimately suspension of a license.)

“Most clients would like to pay,” says attorney Antionette Dozier of the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “If they had the means, they would. They were unable to pay.”

The center also sent the California Department of Motor Vehicles a letter arguing that by suspending licenses at the behest of L.A. Superior Court (LASC), it's “engaging in an unlawful practice,” Dozier said.

More than 600,000 Californians have suspended licenses for “nonsafety reasons,” the law center says.

The U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division has weighed in via letter on the practice of ending driving privileges over payment. The letter “informed judicial actors that it is unlawful to suspend an individual’s driver’s license for failing to pay a fine if the individual was deprived of his or her due-process right to establish an inability to pay,” the suit states.

Locally, driver's license suspensions “do not affect all Angelenos equally,” the suit argues, adding, “Those affected by LASC’s illegal practices are disproportionately people of color, especially black and Latino people.”

It's an “extraordinary” move to sue an entire court system, Dozier said, but this was necessary because L.A. Superior Court officials did not respond to attempts to get them to correct their methods of justice.

San Francisco courts have indicated they will stop suspending licenses based on inability to pay, and six other California court systems are in talks with the law center over their suspension policies, she said.

State Sen. Bob Hertzberg, who has introduced multiple bills in an attempt to ensure that Californians don't lose their driving privileges over small-time tickets, urged L.A. County Superior Court to follow the very laws that it makes the rest of us honor.

“We know that suspending driver’s licenses for people who are struggling to make ends meet can have huge negative consequences, including costing them their jobs” he said. “It’s imperative that courts take into account the severity of this action. Driver’s licenses should be suspended only when merited and not for minor missteps, such as failing to pay a traffic fine on time.”

Hertzberg's SB 881, currently making its way through the Legislature, would stop automatic driver's license suspensions for failure to pay fines in minor traffic cases. Hertzberg also has proposed a ticket amnesty program that reduces fines and allows motorists to make payments while privileges are reinstated.

L.A. Superior Court spokeswoman Mary Hearn had no comment.

A DMV spokesperson said the agency has received the law center's letter and that the department is “reviewing it.”

“The DMV works hard to ensure everyone is treated fairly and are currently collaborating on a landmark amnesty program for unpaid traffic tickets,” the spokesperson stated.

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