SACRAMENTO – Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, unveiled legislation today to prevent the automatic suspension of driver’s licenses for people who are unable to pay fines or fees for minor traffic tickets and require courts to determine violators’ ability to pay before setting fine amounts.
SB 185, introduced this morning, states that your economic status shouldn’t determine your access to justice and ability to make amends. In addition, any previously suspended licenses must be reinstated for violators who make a good faith effort to begin payment plans.
“It’s in everyone’s best interest to give Californians who are struggling to make ends meet a chance to keep their driver’s licenses, keep their jobs and pay off traffic ticket fines,” Hertzberg said. “We want all people, regardless of their income level, to be able to pay their debts and move on with their lives.”
Editors Note – here is the Legislative Councel’s Digest
Gov. Jerry Brown endorsed the idea in his proposed spending plan for the 2017-18 fiscal year. In the budget plan, which he delivered to the Legislature on Jan. 10, he wrote: “There does not appear to be a strong connection between suspending someone’s drivers license and collecting their fine or penalty. Often, the primary consequence of a drivers license suspension is the inability to legally drive to work or take one’s children to school.”
Across the country, rising court fines, fees and penalties for minor offenses have proved especially burdensome to the poor and working poor, who can end up losing their driver’s licenses , jobs and freedom – sometimes going to jail – simply because they could not pay a traffic fine or failed to appear for a court hearing. A New Jersey study found that 42 percent of people whose driver’s licenses were suspended lost their jobs as a result of the suspension.
According to a report issued last year by the U.S. Federal Reserve, 46 percent of Americans don’t have $400 to pay for an emergency expense and would have to sell something or borrow money to cover the cost. Traffic tickets often cost hundreds of dollars and can exceed $400, depending on the offense.
“We have to quit punishing people simply for being poor, and unfortunately, that’s what our justice system often does with high fines and fees for minor traffic offenses,” Hertzberg said.
The bill is sponsored by a coalition of social justice groups that includes the Western Center on Law and Poverty, American Civil Liberties Union of California and East Bay Community Law Center.
“When poor people get their licenses suspended because they are too poor to pay the ticket, the state won’t restore the license until they pay back all the money they owe,” said Michael Herald, legislative advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “But without a license, they can’t get to work or get a job, and people are trapped in poverty.”
“The current punishment for being poor is too severe,” Herald added, “and a solution to this problem is long overdue. Senator Hertzberg’s bill will provide a way for people to get their licenses back if they cooperate with the courts and keep them from falling into abject poverty.”
The measure is part of Hertzberg’s ongoing efforts to restore common sense to California’s criminal justice system and roll back unfair and overly harsh penalties that hammer those of modest means.
In December, Bob Hertzberg introduced SB 10, The California Money Bail Reform Act of 2017, which aims to replace a pretrial process that often forces people with limited income to remain in jail until a court can determine their innocence or guilt but allows the wealthy to go free.
Like a driver’s license suspension, a few days in jail can cost many people their jobs and send their lives into a downward spiral before a court has even determined whether they are innocent or guilty of charges filed against them.
In 2015, Hertzberg authored SB 405, which, along with Brown’s related budget proposal, established a new traffic amnesty program for traffic offenses prior to 2013. The program allows people to talk to a judge if they want to before paying fines, restores driver’s licenses to those with a payment plan and reduces exorbitant fee debts by taking a person’s income into account in setting the fine amount.
In the first nine months of that program, more than 175,000 Californians received amnesty fine and fee reductions and more than 153,000 Californians had their suspended driver’s licenses reinstated, according to the California Judicial Council.
Hertzberg went on in 2016 to author SB 881, which requires courts to respond to traffic amnesty claims within 90 days of the claims being filed, and SB 882, which prohibits youths from being charged with a criminal violation for transit fare evasion and instead treats the offense through an administrative process.
Bob Hertzberg, chair of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water, represents nearly 1 million San Fernando Valley residents of Senate District 18, which includes part of Burbank and the following communities in Los Angeles: Arleta, Granada Hills, Hansen Dam, Lake View Terrace, Mission Hills, North Hills, North Hollywood, part of Northridge, Pacoima, Panorama City, Sherman Oaks, Studio City, part of Sun Valley, Sylmar, Toluca Lake, Valley Glen, Valley Village, Van Nuys, the City of San Fernando and Universal City. See a district map at http://sd18.senate.ca.gov/district. After serving in the Assembly from 1996-2002, including two years as Speaker, Hertzberg invested in solar, wind and electric-car projects; and worked for structural changes in government through the Think Long Committee of California. Learn more at www.senate.ca.gov/hertzberg.