Human Rights

California Has a System That Punishes the Poor Through Traffic Violations—Civil Rights Groups Are Starting to Change That

Solano County traffic violators will get a chance to challenge the unreasonably high fees that send them into debt.

Photo Credit: Bonezboyz / Shutterstock

Throughout the United States, cities impose heavy traffic fines to generate revenue. But these expensive fines mostly hurt lower-income people and people of color and often lead to suspended driver’s licenses. As a result, people get trapped in a debtors’ prison as these exorbitant fines pile up. 

A recent lawsuit in California’s Solano County Superior Court successfully challenged the state’s policy of holding traffic violators to unreasonable fines, regardless of their ability to pay. Civil liberties groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights (LCCR) were part of the suit against the court. The settlement provides a template for challenging exorbitant traffic fines and byzantine fee structures that trap people in poverty. 

Under the settlement’s terms, Solano County Superior Court will notify traffic defendants of their right to be heard regarding their “ability to pay,” and it will “update all notifications to traffic defendants, including its website, the oral advisements provided by traffic court judges, and the ‘notice of rights’ handout given to all traffic defendants,” according to a Bay Area Legal Aid press release. The updated notices inform defendants of their rights to ask the Court for a lower fine, a payment plan, or community service if they cannot afford the traffic fine. For homeless, low-income, or public-benefit-receiving traffic defendants, the Court agreed to consider alternative penalties that do not involve paying monetary fines, such as community service. 

Traffic defendants do, in fact, have a right to argue “ability to pay” when contesting fines in court. But typically, courts do not inform defendants that they actually have this right. This settlement upholds that right by ensuring Solano County Superior Court inform defendants of their right to argue “ability to pay” and consider alternative penalties.   

ACLU attorney Micaela Davis argues that suspending someone’s driver’s license is unconstitutional. She told AlterNet, “Without giving someone notice and opportunity to be heard on their ability to pay and then by applying the sanction of the license suspension, you’re essentially punishing someone, via that license suspension, without providing due process”—thus violating the U.S. Constitution.

Solano County lies in the northern part of the San Francisco Bay Area. It includes cities like Fairfield (the county seat) and Vallejo. To Solano County’s east is Sacramento County, which houses California’s capital of Sacramento (also the county seat). 

The California state government also passed legislation regarding the suspension of driver’s licenses for unpaid traffic fines. In late June, California governor Jerry Brown signed a bill ending driver’s license suspensions for unpaid traffic fines. 

Suspending someone’s driver’s license deprives them of a means of transportation. This makes it difficult to run necessary errands, go to work, or even find work since some jobs require a driver’s license. Many working-class and lower-income Californians live in areas where public transportation is almost nonexistent. In these areas, not having access to a car makes it nearly impossible to get around. So for many people, unless they live in a metropolitan area with ample public transportation, having a driver’s license is a necessity. Gov. Brown’s bill alleviates some of this stress. 

While the bill is certainly a step in the right direction, it does not fix the problem that the fines remain way too high for some to afford. As Davis explained to AlterNet, “Even though that ultimate sanction [suspended driver’s license for unpaid traffic fines] is gone, the fact of the matter is the fees that are assessed on people are still way too high. Even if someone is not having their license suspended, we’re still seeing huge problems with people saddled with these court debts that they can’t pay off.” 

Under California law, failing to appear in court, failing to pay an infraction ticket (even if the defendant cannot afford the fine), or driving with a suspended license is a misdemeanor. Police can “arrest, book, and jail people for traffic court warrants or the criminal misdemeanor offense of driving with a suspended license,” according to a 2016 LCCR report. Punishment can mean six months in jail, years of probation, and several expensive fees. 

Out of all the U.S. states, California arguably has the most expensive and byzantine traffic fines and fee structures. Base fines for common infractions, like traffic violations, in California are typically similar to other states. However, additional fees are piled onto the base fine, which increases the actual fine cost to exorbitant amounts. Such fees include state penalty assessment, court operations assessment, county fund, and several other fees. “California’s court costs and penalty fees are significantly higher than average,” according to another LCCR report published in 2017. 

Additionally, if a defendant fails to pay the fine or appear in court or misses a deadline, a $300 civil assessment fee is added to the fine. According to the 2017 LCCR report, “State law makes the imposition of a civil assessment fee permissive (not mandatory), but almost all California courts routinely impose this fee. Additionally, state law allows courts discretion to impose ‘up to’ $300 but all nine Bay Area counties—and almost all California counties—impose the maximum allowable amount of $300 automatically, in all cases.” Civil assessment fees go to the Trial Court Trust Fund, which funds California’s state courts. “Courts receive 100 percent of these fees (other fees are earmarked for other state projects) and use these fees to balance their budgets,” according to LCCR. 

As a result, California traffic fines are the highest in the nation. For example, according to the 2017 LCCR report, running a red light in California carries a $490 fine, the highest in the country. While the base fine for a red light violation is $100, additional fees increase it to $490. The second highest is Oregon, where running a red light carries a $260 fine, while for most states, the fee is less than $200—an average fine of $154 in other states. A speeding violation in California carries a $233 fine. The base fine is $35, but additional fees increase it to $233. The average fine for speeding in other states is $115. Running a stop sign in California carries a $238 fine, while the average is $151 in other states. Meanwhile, California’s jaywalking fine is $197 compared to an average of $108 in other states. 

These exorbitant fines exist at a time when the middle class has dwindled throughout the country. According to a Social Security Administration report, 50 percent of American wage earners made less than or equal to $29,930.13 in 2015, while 67.4 percent made less than or equal to $46,119.78.   

People of color, particularly blacks and Latinos, are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated. Police have a high level of discretion when it comes to charging people for minor infractions and where they direct their law enforcement efforts. This discretion “allows for implicit bias of law enforcement officers to influence where they target their enforcement effort,” according to the 2017 LCCR report. 

Black and Latino drivers are more likely to be pulled over, arrested, ticketed, and searched by police during traffic stops compared to whites. A recent Stanford study also showed that when pulled over for speeding, black and Latino drivers are 20 and 30 percent, respectively, more likely to be ticketed than whites and twice as likely to be searched. Black and Latino drivers are also searched based on less evidence. 

LCCR also points out that “African-American people were 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for a common, minor offense, and over 4 times more likely to be arrested in many states.” But this is not related to higher wrongdoing by people of color. According to LCCR, “people of color are more likely to be detained despite not doing anything wrong.”  

In several Bay Area countries, black and Latino drivers are disproportionately arrested and jailed for driving with a license that was suspended due to failing to pay an infraction fine. The 2017 LCCR report notes a pattern of systemic racial discrimination in county jail bookings for this failure-to-pay infraction. “[W]hite drivers are approximately half as likely to be booked in County jail for driving after failing to pay a traffic violation, relative to the county census population average, whereas drivers in the Hispanic or Other racial categories are roughly four times as likely, and African-American drivers are as much as 16 times more likely, depending on the county,” according to the report. 

In Alameda County, where Oakland and Berkeley are located, blacks make up over 40 percent of failure-to-pay bookings, even though they are 10 percent of the county’s population, according to LCCR. Latinos make up over 30 percent of failure-to-pay jail bookings but are under 20 percent of the county population. Meanwhile, whites make up over 40 percent of Alameda County’s population but 20 percent of failure-to-pay jail bookings. In Santa Clara County, where many tech companies like Google and Facebook are located, blacks are less than 5 percent of the county’s population, while Latinos are under 20 percent and whites are around 45 percent. However, Latinos make up over 60 percent of failure-to-pay jail bookings and blacks are 10 percent of those bookings, while whites make up 20 percent. A similar pattern of racial discrimination occurs in failure-to-pay jail bookings for non-traffic violations, such as loitering. 

Many cities throughout the country get their revenue from fines—which explains courts’ refusal to inform defendants of their right to argue “ability to pay.” But those fines usually come from black residents. A Priceonomics study of cities’ revenue from fines found that cities that relied heavily on fines had larger black populations. “We found one demographic that was most characteristic of cities that levy large amounts of fines on their citizens: a large African-American population. Among the fifty cities with the highest proportion of revenues from fines, the median size of the African-American population—on a percentage basis—is more than five times greater than the national median,” writes Dan Kopf of Priceonomics. Meanwhile, income level had very little bearing on cities’ reliance on fines for revenue.  

African Americans make up 3.8 percent of the median city population in the United States, according to Priceonomics. However, for the top 50 cities in terms of proportion of revenue from fines, blacks make up 18.9 percent of the population. A similar pattern occurs when looking at averages rather than median. Cities that receive 10 percent or more of their revenue from fines and forfeitures have an average black population of 25.9 percent compared to an 8.7 percent black population for cities that only get 0 to 1 percent of their revenue from fines. 

Priceonomics said the connection between “fines and largely African American populations” is unlikely from black people committing more offenses. Plus, according to the 2016 LCCR report, there is “no documented difference in driving behavior” between whites and nonwhites. Furthermore, there is no evidential difference in driving behavior based on race. Blacks and Latinos are no more dangerous behind the wheel than white people. “A more likely explanation,” according to Priceonomics, is that blacks “are more highly policed and that, as has been acknowledged by the Director of the FBI, African Americans suffer from heavier legal penalties due to the implicit bias of police officers.” 

Courts throughout California and the country use fines as a source of revenue. These expensive and byzantine fee structures largely hurt lower-income people and people of color. In fact, cities that rely more on fines as a source of revenue have larger black populations. Courts typically do not inform traffic defendants of their right to argue “ability to pay” when contesting these fines. The Solano County Superior Court settlement serves as a model to challenge this system. However, it only applies to Solano County. And it remains to be seen whether the court will follow through. So the fight to challenge exorbitant traffic fines and the modern-day debtors’ prison will continue. 

Adam Hudson is a journalist, writer and photographer. His work has appeared in Truthout, AlterNet, teleSUR English, the Nation and other publications.  

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