Report: As in Ferguson, California’s Poor Subject to Unfair Fines, Fees

A civil rights group says a citation can result in Californians losing their driver's licenses.

A civil rights group says a citation can result in Californians losing their driver's licenses. ( Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Maybe California isn’t so far from Ferguson, Missouri, after all.

A scathing report released by a civil rights group today says the Golden State’s structure of spiraling court fees and fines — which tend to disproportionately affect poor Californians —  are “chillingly similar” to practices in Ferguson recently slammed by federal justice officials.

The report, by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco, concludes that “a litany of practices and policies in California turn a citation offense into a poverty sentence.” The group found that more than 4 million Californians have lost their driver’s licenses because they failed to appear in court or pay a citation — some of which have nothing to do with driving at all.

“This has created a major barrier to employment for folks,” said Lawyers’ Committee attorney Meredith Desautels. “When someone’s license is suspended as a result of them not being able to pay a fine, it becomes a poverty trap — they can’t get a job because they can’t pay their fine, and they can’t pay their fine because their license is suspended.”

The report includes the story of Andrew, a 22-year-old single father and mechanic who had an installment payment plan to pay off some traffic tickets.

“A few months into the payments, his two-year-old son was diagnosed with leukemia,” the report reads. “As his son’s sole caretaker, Andrew had to leave his job to care for his son. His sudden loss of income meant that he could not meet the terms of his payment plan, and the court suspended his driver’s license. His fines were handed off to a collections agency, with an extra $300 ‘civil assessment’ tacked on for his ‘failure to pay’ as planned. Andrew needed to travel over 25 miles to and from chemotherapy treatments several times a week without a car, and he was terrified to bring his immuno-compromised 2-year-old on the bus. The court refused to hear his case unless he paid the full fine amount, and he was told he could not get a license until the full amount of fines and fees was paid, even if he resumed making installment payments.”

Desautels says the report doesn’t address serious criminal offenders, but normal people who violate minor laws. Fees and fines are being assessed for low-level offenses — a broken tail light, speeding, jaywalking . But what looks like a $100 ticket comes with some hefty add-ons: Once you tack on all the automatic state and county fees, that $100 total jumps to $490. If you miss your court date or deadline to pay, the fine jumps again, to $815.

If a person doesn’t have $490, they probably don’t have $815, Desautels said — and if they don’t pay, they are likely to have their license suspended.

Compounding these woes, she said, after individuals lose their licenses, courts are often unwilling to schedule a hearing with a judge until the fines are paid off.

The report notes that budget shortfalls in recent years have caused public agencies to raise fees and to increasingly rely on them to balance their budgets.

The Lawyer’s Committee recommends a change to state law so that authorities no longer use license suspensions as a collection tool for citation-related debt — and says the change should be retroactive. The group also recommends reducing current fees by 50 percent.

Some public officials in San Francisco and Sacramento are taking note — Sen. Robert M. Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys) is exploring legislation to tackle the problem, and San Francisco Supervisor John Avalos recently called for a hearing to explore driver’s license suspensions and their impact on low-income residents.

Read the report:

Report: As in Ferguson, California’s Poor Subject to Unfair Fines, Fees 22 May,2015Marisa Lagos

  • Whiskey Man

    Simple. Do the crime , Pay the Fine , Or don’t Drive

  • Steven Andersen

    Over FOUR million? Sadly, the poor he been forced to subsidize the ongoing unfunded supersizing of public sector pensions. And losing a driver’s license is a sad trap from which much of the poor can’t climb out. Yes, we are Ferguson.

  • annjohns

    Of course when the DOJ report came out I and many others noted that this use of traffic violations to plump budgets was standard practice in California any real journalists interested in investigating and reporting where this happens across the country). Since its standard practice, the fact that African Americans are ‘more affected’ in Ferguson is clearly a function of their majority in the population. Here in CA, this article charges the “effect” is worse for the “poor”? So it’s cool for those who can “afford” to PAY these padded fines? NO. The practice is an abuse and is out of control. Rolling a stop sign? the actual fine is $35, in my county, with fees? $450. “The report notes that budget shortfalls in recent years have caused
    public agencies to raise fees and to increasingly rely on them to
    balance their budgets.” Budget shortfalls should be fixed with budget cuts or increased taxes that we vote for or elected representatives vote for (and we can then vote out of office if we choose) Bloated gov’t is responsible in Ferguson and California.

  • elldogg

    So if California didn’t have all these huge fines and penalties for Citizens they couldn’t afford to give SNAP and welfare to all the illegal aliens they have invited from Central America.

  • Driving should be a privilege, not a right. I really wish we had variable traffic fines based on the defendant’s ability to pay, so that wealthy people pay more for careless driving. Still, our traffic fines are relatively minor compared with other countries. In the UK a speeding ticket can cost you thousands of dollars, and in most other countries a DUI is a criminal offense not a mere misdemeanor. Deaths by automobile are the leading cause dying in the US, partially because we don’t take driving safely seriously. So any attempts to weaken our driving penalties will invariably end up with more people driving carelessly and more people dying on our streets. Yes we need a better system for getting the poor out of this collections trap for traffic fines, but we shouldn’t do this at the cost of weakening our traffic laws.

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Marisa Lagos

Marisa Lagos reports on state politics for KQED’s California Politics and Government Desk, which uses radio, television and online mediums to explore the latest news in California’s Capitol and dig deeper into political influence in the Golden State. Marisa also appears on a weekly podcast analyzing the week’s political news.

Before joining KQED, Marisa worked  at the San Francisco Examiner and Los Angeles Times, and, most recently, for nine years at the San Francisco Chronicle where she covered San Francisco City Hall and state politics, focusing on the California legislature, governor, budget and criminal justice. In 2011, she won a special award for extensive and excellent work in covering California justice issues from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, and also helped lead the Chronicle’s award-winning breaking news coverage of the 2010 San Bruno Pacific Gas & Electric explosion. She has also been awarded a number of fellowships from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.

Marisa has a bachelor’s degree from the University of California at Santa Barbara. She and lives in San Francisco with her two sons and husband. Email: Twitter @mlagos Facebook

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