California Driver's License Suspensions Disproportionately Affect Blacks and Latinos
(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
A disproportionate share of Black and Latino Californians are losing their driver's licenses because of unpaid tickets, according to a new study. Escalating fees related to traffic tickets have led to driver's license suspensions for 4.2 million Californians (or roughly 1 in 6 California drivers), according to the report, which was authored by a coalition of civil rights and legal services organizations.
The report charges that these suspensions and fines push low-income Californians further into poverty by harming credit ratings and making it more difficult for people to get and keep jobs, all of which further impede ability to pay off one's debt. As any Californian who has ever missed a payment on a traffic citation knows, once an initial payment is missed, fees quickly skyrocket. After an initial deadline to appear in court or pay the ticket is missed, one's driver's license is swiftly suspended and an additional $300 civil assessment is added to the total fine amount.
The report, authored by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, A New Way of Life, the East Bay Community Law Center, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and the Western Center on Law & Poverty, calls for California to end the use of license suspensions as a collection tool for citation-related debt.
Theresa Zhen, an attorney with A New Way of Life, told LAist that the coalition tabulated their findings by combining census reports with DMV data showing driver's license suspension numbers by zip code.
After mapping the DMV data, the coalition compared it to maps generated from census data showing indicators of poverty (e.g. household income, unemployment, public assistance received) and observed a strong correlation between the two. They also used census data to look at race (the DMV does not keep data on race), and found that the highest rates of license suspensions were taking place in predominately Black and Latino neighborhoods.
Map courtesy of Back on The Road coalition. The map on the left shows driver's license suspensions by zip code, and the map on the right displays poverty rate by zip code.
Taking it a step further, the coalition turned to police reports from around the state to confirm a correlation between license suspensions and race (unlike the DMV, sheriff's departments keep data on race). The patterns they found were "very disturbing," according to Zhen, and further confirmed that the policy has a disparate racial impact, and that Blacks and Latinos are hit hardest by license suspension policies. According to the report, 85% of the 20,000 people arrested from September 2013 to September 2015 for driving with a suspended license were Black or Latino.
The L.A. Times reports that license suspensions have long been viewed as an essential tool for compelling violators to pay the fines, and that the state has come to rely heavily on the fines to fund a variety of programs. And yet uncollected court-ordered debt continues to grow, with recent totals estimated at $10 billion, according to the Times.
"When you get 4 million people with suspended licenses and they're not paying, I think we've got a systematic failure," Mike Herald of the Los Angeles-based Western Center on Law & Poverty told the paper.
So what can be done to remedy the problem? According to Zhen, "California can fix the problem this year" by passing Senate Bill 881, which would end the practice of license suspensions based on unpaid fees, "delinking the inability to pay a court fine and a driver's license suspension." The bill, authored by California State Senator Robert Hertzberg of the San Fernando Valley, will be heard in the Senate's Transportation Committee Tuesday.
(Infographic courtesy of Back on The Road coalition)
Note: This article was updated to add Legal Services for Prisoners with Children to the list of organizations who authored the report.