Bill Advances Gov. Brown's Plan to Stop Suspending Licenses for Traffic Debt

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The Department of Motor Vehicles suspends a driver's license after the courts notify the agency of two or more failures to pay or appear in court for traffic violations. Legal aid and civil rights groups maintain the practice impacts low-income drivers disproportionately. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

Update, Jan. 25, 4:30 p.m.: State Sen. Robert Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys) introduced a bill to the Legislature today to advance Gov. Jerry Brown's plan to stop license suspensions for drivers who fail to pay traffic fines.

SB 185 would extend keystones of the state's temporary traffic amnesty program, requiring courts to reduce fines up to 80 percent for low-income Californians with minor traffic violations, and allowing drivers to get their licenses reinstated if they sign up for payment plans.

Original story, Jan. 12: Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing to eliminate the suspension of driver's licenses for Californians who fail to pay traffic tickets and related court fees, according to the $179.5 billion budget plan released Tuesday.

The controversial move could benefit motorists who can't afford to pay hefty traffic fines and lose the ability to legally drive as a result, which advocates say pushes them deeper into poverty. Critics of the plan say it will remove a major incentive for ticketed drivers to pay fines that fund the state's cash-strapped courts and other programs.

At least 600,000 motorists have their licenses currently revoked because of failure to pay traffic fines or to appear in court, according to the California Department of Motor Vehicles.

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Brown has characterized the system that leads to low-income drivers losing their licenses as a “hellhole of desperation.” Motorists who continue to drive illegally and are stopped by police can get charged with a misdemeanor and lose their vehicles permanently.

Courts in California and other states use the penalty of license suspensions as one way to pressure drivers into paying debt, which can quickly balloon to hundreds of dollars if motorists fail to pay tickets for even minor offenses, such as driving with a broken tail light.

But license suspensions are not working effectively as a tool to collect traffic debt, which has ballooned to $9.7 billion as of last year, according to the analysis in the governor's budget proposal.

"There does not appear to be a strong connection between suspending someone’s drivers license and collecting their fine or penalty," Brown's budget summary says.

A day after the governor unveiled his budget plan, California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said she has yet to read the fine print on the proposed repeal of driver's license suspensions but she agrees with it in principle.

“We certainly understand and highlight the concern that a suspended driver’s license based on fines and fees alone can start a downward spiral effect and have consequences that none of us support,” Cantil-Sakauye said during her annual meeting with reporters in San Francisco.

California courts have administered a statewide traffic amnesty program that is set to expire in March. In less than a year, the program allowed over 153,000 drivers statewide to make reduced payments and get their suspended licenses back.

But Cantil-Sakauye said that getting rid of driver's license suspensions entirely for those who fail to pay could hurt courts' ability to collect about $2 billion annually in fines and fees, which fund more than just the courts.

"Sixty percent or over goes to state and local government programs -- all worthy programs," Cantil-Sakauye said. "But the courts seem to be at the center of it because we are by statute mandated to assess those fees."

Cantil-Sakauye said that a sustainable solution to the larger issue of unfair fines and fees will ultimately need to involve all three branches of government.

California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye responds to Governor Jerry Brown's proposal to do away with driver's license suspensions as debt collection tool.
California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye responds to Gov. Jerry Brown's proposal to do away with driver's license suspensions as a debt collection tool in San Francisco on Jan. 11. (Sukey Lewis/KQED)

The California Police Chiefs Association, which has opposed previous attempts to eradicate the automatic suspension of licenses for those who don't pay, argues that drivers will have a lower incentive to pay fines if the state gets rid of that penalty.

"Removing the penalties for disregarding our rules could potentially lead to fostering further disregard," said Ventura Police Chief Ken Corney, a spokesman for the association. Traffic tickets partly fund police trainings, according to the head of the group.

The governor's proposal was praised by Democratic state Sen. Robert Hertzberg, who authored a bill last year that initially would have stopped the DMV from suspending the license of someone who doesn't pay traffic tickets. Facing opposition from judges and law enforcement, Hertzberg said, the bill morphed to focus on speeding up claims for the traffic amnesty program, which Hertzberg helped to establish.

“I am excited Gov. Brown recognizes the importance of driver’s licenses to Californians struggling to make ends meet and how unfair it is to suspend licenses for people who can’t afford to pay court fees or fines," Hertzberg said.

The governor's proposal comes as a coalition of legal aid and civil rights groups are suing the DMV and Los Angeles and Solano counties to halt the automatic suspension of driver's licenses for people who are unable to afford traffic tickets.