November 11, 2015
When he signed into law a traffic “amnesty program” earlier this year, Governor Jerry Brown intended to provide relief for poor people saddled with debts and suspended licenses. Under the new program, people with traffic debts can get their licenses reinstated while they are in the process of making payments. However, civil legal aid advocates such as East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC) argue that California’s amnesty program is failing the very people it is supposed to serve. In particular, the court systems in both Alameda and Contra Costa counties have implemented numerous policies that make the benefits of the program inaccessible to the East Bay’s poorest residents.
Among these policies are certain interpretations of how the law should be applied. For example, defendants can get their licenses reinstated if they are “in good standing” on a debt payment plan. The law, however, does not define “in good standing” and allows counties to establish specific policies. For Alameda County Superior Court, the court only considers people to be in “good standing” if they pay off every single monthly payment they’ve missed. In some cases, this can amount to nearly the entire debt. “You have to pay in full, which is not the purpose of the program,” said Alex Kaplan, an East Bay Community Law Center intern.
Robert Fleshman, a supervisor with the Judicial Council, said the council wrote amnesty implementation guidelines encouraging county courts to honor the anti-poverty goals of the law. “In those areas where it’s gray, [we encouraged county courts to] be generous and compassionate,” he said.
Those hoping to take advantage of the new traffic amnesty program also encounter problems with debt collection agencies. Debt collection companies such as AllianceOne oversee installment payments against debts and have made unreasonable payment demands, according to advocates. Adam Poe, a staff attorney with Bay Area Legal Aid Society (BayLegal), said that AllianceOne recently required one of his clients to pay an $800 down payment to be in good standing. “The program itself is designed to give people with no money … an opportunity to get their license reinstated,” Poe said. “This defeats the entire purpose.”
Dana Isaac, an attorney with the San Francisco-based Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights (LCCR), said she also had a number of concerns about AllianceOne’s tactics in San Francisco. The debt collection company has incorrectly told clients that they aren’t eligible for the amnesty program when, in fact, they did qualify for a license reinstatement. She said it also appears that AllianceOne has set arbitrary payment plans in a way that could shut out low-income residents.
Even if county courts and AllianceOne implemented the amnesty program in a way that was fairer and simpler, the initiative still has many shortcomings, advocates said. “The most troubling thing about amnesty is that it doesn’t get at the underlying problem of license suspensions,” said Mari Castaldi, program coordinator with East Bay Community Law Center. “In another year’s time, there’s going to be another half million people across the state who have their licenses suspended.”
Organizations mentioned/involved: East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC), Judicial Council of California (Judicial Council), Bay Area Legal Aid (BayLegal), Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area (LCCR)