By Brian Dahle
Arthur came into my District Office one day with a problem. He explained his situation hoping to get help. Apparently, Arthur ran a red light and was caught by an automated camera system. Because no officer on patrol actually stopped him and told him what he had done wrong, he was not aware of the violation at the time.
Arthur never received his ticket in the mail because he is in between homes. Court records show that the summonses had been returned undelivered on two occasions. Fortunately, Arthur was able to receive some mail which was delivered to a friend’s home including a letter from the DMV. The letter from the DMV warned him his license would be suspended for failing to pay the ticket.
In order to solve the issue, Arthur went to the courthouse to explain the situation. He was offered a new court date and the judge said he would consider being lenient. Unfortunately, the court date was weeks after his license would be suspended. To clear up the suspension, he would have to pay the full fine and penalties; roughly $700 including hundreds in charges for failing to respond to a court summons. A summons the court’s own records show he never received.
If he did not pay the fine, Arthur would be breaking the law anytime he drove his car. The car he happened to be living in when he was looking for work. Arthur was able to solve his issue, but millions of Californians are not as lucky. This is an issue that must be addressed.
Caught between steep fines, automated enforcement, and a system that suspends driver’s licenses as a collections tool, millions of Californians have lost their ability to legally drive. A report this spring concluded that more than 4 million Californians’ licenses were suspended from 2006 to 2013, with only a tiny fraction ever restored. They owe some $10 billion in unpaid fines.
If citizens cannot pay their fines in the first place, exactly how are they going to pay a much larger fine without the ability to legally drive? Unless they live in one of the few parts of the state with a robust public transportation network, which none of my rural constituents in the 1st Assembly District do, how are they going to obtain and maintain employment without a license?
Some people are just too heedless or irresponsible to take care of their fines. Some measure of accountability is important. But suspending a driver’s license is a severe penalty that should be reserved for keeping the roads safe. Nobody is crying for the drunk drivers who lose their licenses. But the fact is, the law often treats DUI offenders with more grace than it does the fellow who could not pay the $230 ticket for an improper lane change.
California needs to take a hard look at how its ticketing practices punish poor residents beyond reason or justice. The money raised through traffic fines pays for important programs such as DNA databases, emergency medical services, court construction. Scofflaws are an easy target, but we have crossed the line into extracting money for too many public services from those least able to pay.
Suspending licenses for unpaid debts is not only cruel to those who truly cannot pay but counterproductive when it costs people the very jobs they need. For middle-class professionals, a ticket might be an embarrassment and a headache. For a family already scraping by on low or sporadic wages, the system leaves them stuck in a legal and financial trap – a “hellhole of desperation,” as Gov. Jerry Brown recently described it. The Governor has proposed an amnesty program for unpaid tickets with penalties waived and tickets reduced on a sliding scale based on ability to pay. It is a great idea, but just a start, more needs to be done.
Assemblyman Brian Dahle, R-Bieber, represents California’s 1st Assembly District, which contains all of Lassen, Modoc, Nevada, Plumas, Sierra, Siskiyou, and Shasta Counties, and portions of Butte and Placer Counties.