SAN FRANCISCO — A Northern California superior court has agreed to stop suspending the driver’s licenses of people who can’t afford to pay their traffic tickets, offering them a chance to set up a payment plan or pay by other means, a coalition of civil rights groups announced earlier this week.
Solano County Superior Court will notify traffic defendants of their right to be heard regarding their ability to pay, the coalition said, and the notices will explain their right to ask for a lower fine, a payment plan or community service.
The settlement resolves a lawsuit filed last year by the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and others that claimed the court’s actions violated both the state’s vehicle code and due process protections — and essentially criminalized poverty.
“We were able to work with the court to find a system that will provide notice to people about their rights and ability to pay,” said Raegan Joern, a staff attorney at Bay Area Legal Aid, “and make it clear that people have that right.”
A representative for Solano’s superior court did not return calls seeking comment. In the settlement, the court agreed to address the coalition’s claims without agreeing the claims were true.
The settlement comes on the heels of a California state budget deal enacted last month that prohibits courts from suspending driver’s licenses simply because of unpaid traffic fines.
Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, said the punishment didn’t help the state collect the fines and sent low-income people into cycles of job losses and more poverty.
In March, about 488,000 people had suspended driver’s licenses for failing to pay traffic tickets or missing court appearances, according to data from the California Department of Motor Vehicles.
In its 2016 complaint, the civil rights coalition argued that courts can only act to suspend licenses for failure to pay if the driver “willfully” failed to do so and that an inability to pay is not the same as a willfully failing to pay.
The coalition notified 17 other counties that their suspension practices are illegal and unconstitutional. Elisa Della-Piana, legal director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, said Tuesday it is surveying counties to see if they have changed their practices.
She said some counties made changes, but didn’t inform staff. Others, she said, offered alternatives to paying in full.
State Sen. Bob Hertzberg, a Democrat from Van Nuys, has a bill in the legislature that would let people who cannot afford their traffic tickets to ask a judge to lower the fines or substitute them with community service.
Sophia Bollag contributed reporting from Sacramento, Calif.