May 6, 2015
When traffic court defendants miss a payment or court date, their fines multiply, and their licenses are suspended. Since 2007, there have been 4 million cases of driver’s licenses suspended for people’s failure to appear in court or pay their fines.
The data shows that many tickets are for violations that aren’t closely related to public safety: a broken headlight, an obstructed windshield, failing to display a carrier identification number, or an incorrectly worn seatbelt. “It’s a ticket for driving while poor,” said Anna Kirsch, staff attorney with East Bay Community Law Center, which helped release a report called “Not Just a Ferguson Problem: How Traffic Courts Drive Inequality in California.”
On top of that, the courts often disallow defendants from going to court unless they post the entire bail, which can be a tremendous barrier for low-income individuals. “It’s just so inflexible,” said Meredith Desautels, a staff attorney with the San Francisco-based Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. She talked about a case where a victim of identity theft failed to appear in court and was blocked from future trials. “He just wants to explain his case to a judge. We have no doubt he’s going to get the ticket canceled. … But he can’t post the money for an offense he didn’t commit.”
Organizations mentioned/involved: East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC), Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area (LCCRSF)