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USC Gould’s access to justice practicum plays key role in lawsuit ruling

Monday, July 20, 2020

Students gain important career experience working on Hernandez v. DMV

By Leslie Ridgeway

When the California Court of Appeals ruled in June that the state Department of Motor Vehicles had been improperly suspending licenses of drivers who fail to appear in court, the USC Gould School of Law’s Access to Justice Practicum was among California legal aid and civic rights groups celebrating a significant victory in criminal justice reform.

Professor of the Practice Clare Pastore, who teaches the Access to Justice Practicum, was co-counsel on Hernandez v. DMV.

Professor of the Practice Clare Pastore, who teaches the practicum, was co-counsel on Hernandez v. DMV along with attorneys from the Western Center on Law & Poverty, Bay Area Legal Aid, and the ACLU of Northern California. For five years, more than a dozen students contributed their time to Hernandez and similar cases, doing data collection, research, observation in traffic court and interviewing potential plaintiffs. 

Pastore was a longtime advocate at the Western Center on Law and Poverty and ACLU before coming to teach at Gould full time in 2007. In 2020, she won the school’s Rutter Distinguished Teaching Award for her classroom and practicum teaching. 

“We are certainly not taking majority credit, but it’s been wonderful to be involved over all these years,” said Pastore. “It’s been really good for the students to learn what it’s like be a small part of a big team working on systemic reform projects that go on for years, with talented advocates from around the state and advocacy in many fora.”

The Hernandez case is part of a national effort that gained steam with the federal Department of Justice investigation of the Ferguson Police Department in 2015 following the shooting death of Michael Brown by police. The report showed that cities were balancing their budgets on the backs of those too poor or disadvantaged to escape from a draconian system of fines and fees that could turn a minor traffic offense into thousands of dollars in debt or a jail sentence, Pastore said.

The practicum has taken on several matters related to this problem of “wealth extraction” by courts and municipalities against low-income citizens whose minor traffic infractions can swell into thousands of dollars of unpayable debt. Successes the Practicum has shared with other advocates include a 2017 legislative amendment ending license suspension in California for inability to pay and a 2018 settlement with Los Angeles County Superior Court requiring more transparency and user-friendly procedures in traffic court matters.

“I’ve seen a lot of bad policy in my many years of advocacy, but suspending the driver’s license of those who can’t pay debt, thereby insuring that they will lose their jobs and never be able to pay it, is one of the stupidest policy tools I’ve ever encountered,” Pastore said. 

The Hernandez decision hinges on the DMV’s practice of suspending licenses for a “willful” failure to appear in court. Despite the limitation in the law regarding “willful” failures, the DMV suspended licenses of tens of thousands of drivers who missed the date due to factors beyond their control, such as the notice being mailed to the wrong address, or transportation or work issues, Pastore said. Losing a driver’s license often “snowballs” into loss of employment, child care, education and housing, she said. 

“With this decision, the DMV has to change its practices,” she said. “This is about insuring the DMV is not suspending licenses when people fail to appear for reasons that are not willful. Though details remain to be worked out, we expect that thousands of Californians will soon have their licenses restored. ”

Students gain knowledge and practical experience in legal aid

Access to Justice Practicum alumna Sierra Villaran (JD 2015), a deputy public defender in the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, conducted research, wrote briefs, went to traffic court, and sought out possible plaintiffs whose cases helped demonstrate the burden placed on individuals for having a suspended driver’s license. Working in Pastore’s Access to Justice Practicum was an opportunity for Villaran to gain practical experience working with a client as a legal practitioner.

“You don’t get many opportunities [in law school] to sit down with real people and ask how [the case] affects them on a daily basis,” she said. “We worked with women recently released from jail or prison and trying to reintegrate into their communities. The debt that comes with traffic fines and fees was a huge barrier for them. For me, working on Access to Justice reaffirmed this is the work I want to do.”

USC Gould alumni Andres Cantero, Natalia DaSilva and Sierra Villaran gained valuable experience working with clients, establishing relationships with organizations and conducting research as part of the Access to Justice Practicum.

Andrés Cantero (JD 2016) was part of the second Access to Justice Practicum class to work on Hernandez. Much of the practicum’s work that year involved helping to establish relationships with the other legal organizations that would eventually file Hernandez v. DMV with the practicum. Cantero worked on drafts accompanying the initial filing of the suit, as well as data collection and writing. Today, Cantero is an associate at Kirkland & Ellis LLP in corporate real estate, but even as a transactional attorney, the lessons he learned from Hernandez instilled a commitment to pro bono work and community advocacy for marginalized populations.

“What was most impactful for me was seeing my relatives in a lot of the clients – not realizing we have rights, sometimes letting things fall by the wayside and blaming it on unfortunate circumstances,” he said. “It goes into the larger discussion currently taking place. A structure is in place that people may not connect with the components that perpetuate racial inequality. This [traffic court] system disparately impacted people of color, and it was nice to try to affect that structure and make a difference in my community.”

Natalia DaSilva (JD 2019), now an attorney with Legal Services of Northern California in Auburn, Calif., not only honed research skills in the practicum, but helped develop a form for traffic court monitors and worked on state legislation covering a related issue – traffic school – that unfortunately stalled in committee. Her work today is informed by her experiences in the practicum, she said.

"I have the privilege of practicing anti-poverty law at a nonprofit, representing low-income individuals living in rural California," she said. "This practicum helped expose me to the disparate impact that infractions and court fines and fees can have on people living in poverty. Since the practicum, I have observed how that impact is amplified here in rural areas where there is no consistent or expansive public transportation. Our clients are unjustly punished for their income status, as losing a license can interrupt their access to job prospects or needed medical care. It's been great to continue this fight outside of the urban centers, where there are fewer attorneys available to help clients enforce their rights."

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