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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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Slough said she could envision a restructuring in which these kinds of fines and fees are removed from the judicial branch entirely and instead ordered and collected through an administrative process. More broadly, however, important government programs should not be so dependent on the penalties ordered against low-income people in traffic court, she argued.

In their recent report on the inequities of traffic court, the East Bay Community Law Center and other legal aid groups argued that the civil assessment penalties should go to the state's general fund instead of to the courts, so that judges would not be incentivized to issue the maximum $300 and ignore a defendant's inability to pay.

More broadly, the groups also called for a state-mandated payment plan formula that would require courts and counties to set fines based on people's financial situation. For example, payments shouldn't exceed 10 percent of an individual's income if his or her income is less than the federal poverty level. The report also recommended a clear process that would allow people to request payment plan adjustments based on a change in financial circumstances — such as an unexpected job loss or medical problem.

In general, low-income people should be able to request waivers for fines owed based on proof of indigence, the advocates argued. They further recommended that all of the existing add-on penalty assessments — the fees that turn a $100 citation into a $500 fine — be reduced by 50 percent.

Perhaps most crucially, advocates argued that ending the use of license suspensions as a collection tool for traffic court debt could go a long way toward preventing people from falling into a cycle of poverty over minor infractions. The courts should instead rely on existing tools and penalties available for civil debt collection under state law, they said. That would mean that license suspensions would only be used when the driver's violation reflects some kind of public safety risk.

Past legislative efforts to improve traffic court have failed. In 2013, Senate Bill 366 would have established stronger requirements to consider people's ability to pay traffic fines, but the Judicial Council argued it didn't have the resources to implement the reforms and couldn't afford to lose revenues. Last year, Assembly Bill 2724, which would have made it easier for defendants to get their driver's licenses reinstated, also failed after court officials argued it was not feasible and too expensive.

Senator Robert Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, this year introduced legislation that would also create a path for people to restore their licenses as part of an amnesty program.

The opposition to these kinds of efforts often overlooks the very real costs to taxpayers that arise when fines trap people in debt and take away their driving privileges, activists note. For starters, the government might collect more of the money owed if the system were more reasonable and did not take away people's licenses, which can be critical to sustaining employment.

Castaldi said she often meets clients who end up relying on public benefits because they lost their jobs after losing their licenses. "In trying to fund the government, the government is the cause of the poverty," she said.

Kirsch added: "The whole idea that everything we do in social services is framed around getting people back to work — this is just so counterintuitive."

When I met with Wilson, Alameda County court executive officer, she had a copy of the "Not Just a Ferguson Problem" on her desk with notes scribbled throughout. She told me that she thought some aspects of the report were misleading and that the tragic stories it featured of people's lives ruined by citations were the exception, not the norm.

And Nancy Adams, a division chief for the courts, told me, "We understand how frustrating it is," but added that she thought the courts gave defendants ample time and opportunities to resolve their fines — and had many avenues to accommodate low-income people. "We live in a very diverse county. We understand that."

Wilson said the court has been working to make traffic court fairer and easier to navigate — creating a system in which people can automatically pay tickets or sign up for installment plans online, and establishing a traffic court call center staffed by knowledgeable clerks, for example. "We've been really looking at how we can improve the process," she said, noting that the court will soon take over some of the debt collection responsibilities that AllianceOne currently handles in an effort to streamline the process.

And though there are some reforms that she said she would support, including allowing people to get their licenses back while they are making payments, she argued that license suspensions are a critical tool to enforce the law.

"People want to take care of their license issue, so they're motivated to figure out how to pay," she said. "I do think it's really important that there's a consequence for failing to take care of a traffic infraction."


Carlos Smith is working to get his life back together. He's currently studying construction management at Laney College in Oakland and hopes to find work again soon. And three weeks ago, he finally got some good news about the massive traffic fine debts that have been holding him back for years: The courts were dismissing all of his outstanding charges and fines.

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