Low-income people have suffered crushing debt, driver’s license suspension when they can’t pay tickets
For some low-income Californians, receiving even a minor traffic citation can trigger a downward financial spiral from which it’s almost impossible to recover.
Recently, several USC Gould law students in the Access to Justice Practicum course joined their professor, Clare Pastore, and a team of civil rights lawyers to work on reforming California’s system of saddling low-income people with crushing debt, and then punishing them by suspending driver’s licenses when they can’t pay.
Advocates including Pastore filed suit in August alleging that the Los Angeles County Superior Court unlawfully refers motorists to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) for license suspension when they can’t afford to pay their traffic tickets. State law provides that only those who “willfully” fail to pay can suffer license suspension, but the court refers all nonpayers without any inquiry into willfulness.
A similar case was filed a few months earlier against a Northern California court, and advocates are working statewide on the issue. And this week, Pastore was among a coalition of legal aid and civil rights organizations who sued the DMV for illegally suspending the driver's licenses of low-income Californians.
“License suspension is intended as a tool to compel payment from scofflaws—those who can pay but do not,” Pastore said. “Instead, the DMV and the California courts are using it as punishment for poverty. This is both terrible public policy and a violation of law.”
The most recent suits were brought on behalf of drivers who have had their driver's licenses suspended in violation of their statutory, due process, and equal protection rights. Each plaintiff was unable to pay the high fines associated with routine traffic tickets, and had his or her license suspended without an assessment of their ability to pay. This ongoing practice is common in California traffic courts, and is not prevented by amnesty policies that went into place last year. The DMV estimates that more than 600,000 Californians have suspended driver's licenses for failure to pay or failure to appear.
"We are funding state services on the backs of some of the lowest-income Californians by piling on fine after fine, fee after fee, and penalty after penalty, on what used to be simple traffic violations with reasonable penalties. Then when people can't pay these exorbitant amounts, the court starts the license suspension process." Pastore said. “Not only is this terrible public policy—because without a driver’s license, many people lose their jobs and any ability to ever pay these gigantic fines—it is illegal under state law and the due process clause of the constitution."
Pastore first became involved in the issue in fall 2014 with Western Center on Law and Poverty lawyers Antionette Dozier and Richard Rothschild ‘75 who are among the plaintiffs’ lawyers. The case became a project in Pastore’s Access to Justice Practicum during the last two years. The Practicum class partners with nonprofit organizations to provide real-world legal experiences for law students and bring resources to systemic reform cases. Practicum projects over the years have included three foster care reform cases, the drafting of a wage theft bill, and amicus briefs in a variety of cases.
“It’s a lot of hard work and the students’ roles are important,” Pastore said.
In 2015, students Sierra Gronewold ’15 and Allison Fisher ’15 untangled a complicated legislative scheme, and prepared a thick binder of memos and materials still in use today by advocates around California. A year later, students Lisa Kim ’17 and Andres Cantero ’16 helped locate clients who needed assistance withnavigating the traffic amnesty process, and complet critical research for the litigation team.
After the 2016 Practicum, Kim continued on the case as Pastore’s research assistant during summer 2016.
“The most significant research involved pinning down the court’s process of suspending drivers licenses without first finding out if the person has the ability to pay or willfully did not pay,” Kim said. “We organized the documentation to unravel the statutes and codes so we had a better understanding of the legal argument and which parts are unlawful.”
Kim was also involved in Los Angeles clinics sponsored by Legal Aid and other nonprofits to assist people under the state’s temporary traffic amnesty program. She sees herself as a future public interest lawyer and will use her experiences to point her career in that direction.
“It was sad to meet people who can’t afford to pay the fines and who are struggling, yet their reality doesn’t propel the courts to help,” Kim said. “By doing my job, I can serve this population.”
Pastore added that she loves the enthusiasm her students have about courses and projects that connect them with social justice issues and allow them to help people without the resources to navigate the justice system.
“These cases have the potential to reform an extremely complex California system that is crushing tens of thousands of low income people and punishing them for their poverty.”