Legal challenge to driver's license suspensions over unpaid fines and fees

KBAK/KBFX file photo

Local courts are watching what happens with a growing legal battle. Civil rights groups have challenged a practice in California courts that allow a driver's license to be suspended, if someone doesn't pay the fees and fines assessed for a traffic violation.

Last year, 25,792 suspensions were handed out in cases like that in Kern County.

That number comes from Kern County Superior Court Executive Officer Terry McNally. He also tells Eyewitness News local courts process 145,000 citations a year, so those suspensions represent about 18 percent of those cases.

"We're like pretty much every other court in the State of California," he said Wednesday. "We utilize the suspension of licenses as a mechanism to encourage people to comply with court orders."

In mid-June, opponents of the practice filed a lawsuit against Solano County Superior Court. Other counties got letters arguing the practice was illegal and unconstitutional.

McNally said Kern hasn't gotten such a letter, but they are "getting feedback" from other courts in the state about the legal challenge.

He said in Kern's courts, drivers get a lot of chances to pay their fees and fines. If they get a citation, the driver can set up a payment plan, and if they miss a payment, the court sends out a notice.

If the driver contacts the court, and resumes payment, there's no action on the driver's license. But, if no payment comes in, the driver is notified, and action can start to suspend their license.

Critics say taking away a driver's license makes it harder to pay a fine, and the practice is harder on low-income drivers.

"For my homeless clients, if they don't have a driver's license, it's basically very hard to keep down a job," attorney Kevin Helper said. He's with Greater Bakersfield Legal Assistance, and he's helped with "Homeless Court."

Helper said in years past, he's heard about the hardships.

"Two of the people I talked to were able to keep their jobs, and their employers were able to work with them so they didn't actually have to drive," Helper describes. "The other one lost their job."

The state already has an amnesty program underway for some drivers. Last June, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a law that lets drivers with unpaid traffic or non-traffic infraction tickets participate in a one-time amnesty. It's set to continue through March 2017.

According to information from the DMV, it's open to drivers with an unpaid traffic ticket that was due by Jan. 1, 2013, or have a suspended driver license and are making payments on the ticket.

There's also a bill currently being heard in Sacramento that would deal with this. Senate Bill 881 was sponsored by Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys. According to a statement from his office, the measure would stop the automatic suspension of driver's licenses for people who fail to appear in court on minor traffic offenses, or fail to pay fines for those offenses.

The differences in types of traffic violations is something Kevin Helper thinks is important.

He said there could be minor violations, like parking tickets, which should not result in losing a driver's license. But, he notes other offenses can be serious.

"If there are fees related to a speeding ticket or reckless driving, then that actually could pose a problem," he said. And, drivers like that may be a danger on the road, and shouldn't have a license to drive.

McNally said the local courts will watch to see what happens with the lawsuit filed by the ACLU and the other groups. He thinks there will likely be an effort to balance the needs for courts to be paid fines for serious traffic violations, and the needs of drivers to be able to get to a job.

"No judge in interested in depriving a person of their livelihood," McNally said. "But in the same regard, I think the judge would like people to comply with the orders of the court."

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