SAN FRANCISCO — The California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) has been sued by a group of civil rights and legal aid organizations who allege the department illegally suspended the driver’s licenses of low-income residents.
One of those groups, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Foundation of Northern California, said it was common practice for the DMV to suspend the licenses of those residents who failed to pay fines related to traffic tickets.
In the court document, the ACLU said, “The DMV’s practices exceed its authority under the California vehicle code, violate the due process and equal protection rights of traffic defendants and cause serious harm to hundreds of thousands of low-income Californians.”
The plaintiffs in the case have said they were unable to pay the high fines due to their economic status.
"The only thing we are asking for is that the court consider a person's ability to pay prior to suspending a license for failure to pay,” legal director for ACLU in Northern California Christine Sun told the Northern California Record. "Under the constitution, people can't be punished solely because of poverty."
The lawsuit cites Bell V Burson and Rios v Cozens as evidence that the California Supreme Court has acknowledged that holding a driver’s license was not a luxury.
“People who can afford to pay traffic fines typically pay for them; for those who cannot afford the fines, the resulting suspension of their license constitutes nothing less than a harsh sanction solely for being poor – a punishment that paradoxically further impairs a person’s ability to met her financial obligations to the courts,” the court document stated.
Details of the document show that the licenses were suspended under vehicle code section 13365. It also states that more than 600,000 driver’s licenses have been suspended by the DMV under this section. The code has a section about willfully failing to pay. The plaintiffs argue that “A failure to pay cannot be willful if the person did not, in fact, have the ability to pay.”
"Often the base fines for these traffic tickets are pretty reasonable,” Sun said. “The problem is that the legislature has just loaded them up with surcharges and fees that have nothing to do with the underlying ticket as a way to balance the budget. We shouldn’t be generating revenue for our court system on the backs of poor people."
Sun also said that for many of the plaintiffs, a vehicle was necessary for employment.
"So, by taking away a person's ability to earn income because they weren't able to pay a fine that was just outrageously expensive violates the law and is terrible public policy," Sun said.
One of the plaintiffs, Guillermo Hernandez, was supposedly issued a ticket in March 2013 for failing to update his address on his license and for not having a valid registration. The filing indicated that Hernandez attempted to appear in court to deal with the ticket but was told by staff they did not have it in their records. The initial ticket was for $500 but additional fees and a fine for failing to appear brought the cost of the ticket to more than $900. In July 2015, he allegedly made a payment of $200 but could not pay the balance. When he went to renew his license at the DMV, he was informed that it had been suspended because he had not paid, documents state.
Another plaintiff listed on the filing, Eloisabeth Baca Cazares, was given a ticket in April 2015 for allegedly driving straight from a turning lane and for failing to provide proof of insurance. She was working two jobs and was unable to take time off to appear in court to prove she had valid insurance. Later that year, she was sent a notice from the courts about the outstanding ticket. When she supposedly attempted to pay the fine, she was told she had to pay the full amount of $1,625. She was informed in September 2016 that her license was suspended because of the unpaid fine. The court put her on a payment plan of $120/month and reinstated her license. However, because of her financial situation, her ability to pay the monthly fee is at risk.
Sun said they were asking for an ability to pay process to be put in place in the courts.
"That the court consider a person's actual financial circumstances and come up with alternatives to payment in full,” she said. "That might be a payment plan. That might be a reduction in fines. It might be community service."
The filing was made on October 25 in Alameda County.