Christina is one of the estimated 4 million California drivers struggling to manage the mounting financial burden of a suspended driver’s license, the result of costly driving fines.
While many drivers are familiar with the process of getting a driving ticket, the subsequent legal process is not as clear — especially when education level or language act as barriers. After statutory add-ons are calculated, a $100 ticket instantly becomes almost $500. Unable to pay this initial cost — and with job or health concerns often getting in the way — many drivers do not make it to court and have their license suspended. In this way, California’s system of fines and fees may disproportionately impact low-income drivers.
A lifelong San Francisco resident, Christina’s mobility is greatly impaired due to a violent mugging that left her wearing a prosthetic leg for the rest of her life. Unable to walk farther than a few blocks, Christina’s license suspension meant an inability to go to the store for groceries, or to make the five separate doctor’s appointments she attended weekly.
This mini-documentary — “Out of Reach” — chronicles Christina’s attempts to have her license reinstated after more than 13 years of suspension.
Christina is not alone. According to a recent report released by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, many drivers face a choice between obeying the law and providing for themselves and their families. The state’s system of using license suspensions as a tool of debt-collection is ineffective, as the loss of employment that often results leaves drivers unable to pay their debt.
An attorney at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, Meredith Desautels, advocates for abolishing the state’s practice of suspending licenses to collect debt. The effects can be so severe that the consequence may be disproportionate compared to the offense. Most of these suspensions are unrelated to driver safety, yet the impact on livelihoods can be devastating. Desautels explained that the system perpetuates statewide economic inequality at the cost of undermining the vitality of California communities.
“Without a license,” Christina said, “I felt stripped. I felt ‘less than.’”
Desautels added: “It becomes a mark that can affect you for the rest of your life.”
In order to contest the ticket, drivers must first pay the full amount. Those who cannot afford the initial costs face a Catch-22. Drivers have a legal right to request consideration of their ability to pay, but to request this they too must first pay the full amount. With access to the courts hindered by one’s ability to pay, Desautels said, “We’re really making justice contingent on having money.”
Questions regarding the appropriateness of using driver’s license suspensions as a tool of debt collection are being raised, and some legislators are taking note. SB 405, a bill proposed by California State Senator Robert Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys), would provide relief to low-income drivers with suspensions resulting from nonviolent offenses by allowing them to reinstate their license for a fifth of what they owe.
At the moment, there are some small signs of relief. In January, the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights debuted a very narrow path of relief, allowing a person to release the hold on their driver’s license, developed in collaboration with the San Francisco Superior Court. Appellants must meet extremely stringent conditions in order to be considered. First, they must agree to pay the total amount that they owe, which can run as high as tens of thousands of dollars. They must also secure in writing a statement from an employer promising them a job if their license is reinstated. Very few jobs can be held for the weeks necessary for the petition to be addressed.
“It doesn’t address the full range of the problems we’re seeing,” Desautels said, “but provides one limited path of relief.”
So far, about 10 people have benefited from this process.
Instead of perpetuating cycles of poverty, Desautels believes California’s traffic court system needs to be “more based in what people’s lives are really like — recognizing that people make mistakes and want to be responsible for them but also have all these competing needs.”
Christina’s last name is withheld from this story at the request of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights.