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The High Cost of Driving While Poor

Alameda County traps people in poverty with steep fines for minor traffic infractions — in a cruel system that depends on punishing Black and low-income residents and is plagued by hypocrisy and conflicts of interest.

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The court sent his cases to the debt collection company AllianceOne, and the DMV subsequently suspended his license. Then in May 2014, he got another ticket — for driving with a suspended license, according to court records. By August, AllianceOne said he owed more than $1,660 in Alameda County.

While the high fines make traffic court a fundamentally challenging system for low-income people, it's the license suspensions and harsh consequences for failures to appear or pay that make the system truly inequitable, advocates say. Critics argue that these stiff punishments have turned the court into a two-tiered system, in which poor people are effectively denied due process because of their personal financial challenges.

Coney's difficulties point to a few common disparities in traffic court, advocates said, especially considering how hard he worked to do the right thing. Defendants found guilty in traffic court — whether by initially pleading guilty (or "no contest") at an arraignment or if a judge rules against them at trial — have a few options to pay off their fines. They can pay it all at once or they can set specific "payment plans," which allow for monthly installments.

A defendant can also choose community service, in which one hour's of work is worth $10 (a rate lower than the minimum wage in Oakland) toward paying off his or her fine. Advocates, however, say judges and commissioners often neglect to inform defendants about this option at trial. And people simply don't have the time to do the extensive amount of community service that an expensive ticket requires.

If a defendant misses a community service deadline or a single monthly installment of a payment plan, the court automatically issues the $300 civil assessment for "failure to pay" and places a hold on the individual's driver's license, a move which prompts the DMV to subsequently suspend the license.

When defendants with $300 civil assessments attempt to resolve the matter, court clerks tell them they have to contact AllianceOne, the debt collection company, to establish new payment plans. At that point, even if they start making monthly payments on time, they can't get their licenses reinstated until they have paid off all their debts. For an individual who can only afford to pay $25 a month, that can take years.

People with suspended licenses in these cases can't even get a "restricted license," which would allow them to drive to and from work. That's despite the fact that the law does allow such accommodations for people convicted of driving under the influence. ("There's always an exception if it's a crime that rich white people commit," said Kirsch, from East Bay Community Law Center).

There are several ways in which Alameda County, like courts across the state, makes this process significantly more burdensome and punitive than state statute requires. For starters, under state law, civil assessments for failure to appear or pay can be "up to $300" — but in Alameda County every assessment is automatically $300. That's despite the fact that the statute also requires traffic courts to consider, upon a defendant's request, his or her ability to pay.

Leah Wilson, court executive officer for Alameda County Superior Court, told me that traffic commissioners have the discretion to reduce the base fine amount to $1. Advocates, however, said this rarely happens, and, regardless, the hefty add-on surcharges and penalties remain in place.

California law also gives the courts broad discretion to dismiss civil assessments for any defendant who "shows good cause for the failure to appear or for the failure to pay." But in Alameda County, the courts generally only dismiss the $300 fees for a few narrow reasons — hospitalization, out-of-state military duty, incarceration, or if you were not the person cited. Wilson said the court will consider other extenuating circumstances beyond those listed.

But advocates told me that clients with valid excuses are routinely rejected and often struggle to get the fee dismissed without the help of an attorney. Kirsch said one recent client who had been diligently making payments on a fine, missed one deadline after he was hospitalized, and the court rejected his request to have the $300 civil assessment dismissed. However, after Kirsch wrote a more persuasive and formal letter, the courts complied and dropped the assessment. "It's hard for people to do this on their own," she said.

In 2014, out of more than 10,000 civil assessment dismissal requests in Alameda County, the courts approved 41 percent and rejected 55 percent, according to data that Wilson provided (the remaining ones have had no ruling yet). Regardless, the data shows that the initial assessments affect a huge number of people each year. Last year, 16,312 people arraigned for traffic charges had previously failed to appear on time, according to Wilson. Alameda County also issued 31,683 civil assessments for failure to pay in 2014, though that total does not account for assessments that the courts later dismissed.

As is the case across the state, defendants in Alameda County often can't pay off these assessments. According to data that Castaldi acquired, from January 2012 through November 2014, Alameda County imposed 260,000 in total civil assessments — during which time only 160,000 were paid (60.6 percent). In addition, the assessments totaled $78.3 million in fines, but the amount paid was only $26.8 million, or 34.2 percent.

During that timeframe, the courts also placed 380,000 holds on driver's licenses — for failure to appear or pay, or failure to comply with a court order, a similar charge — but only lifted 87,000 of those holds, or 22.7 percent. This data, advocates said, shows that the cost of these assessments is simply too high for many defendants, and, as a result, they can easily lose their driving privileges for months or years.

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