Paying More for Being Poor: Bias and Disparity in California’s Traffic Court System

This report is based on the authors’ research on traffic courts and driver’s license suspension practices in the San Francisco Bay Area’s nine counties. It includes an analysis of how much revenue courts collect from fines and fees, the harmful impacts those fees have on low-income Californians, and also advances several policy reform recommendations.

You can read the full text of the report via Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

Key Findings
  • “Although the base fines for California Vehicle Code violations may be lower or comparable to many other states’, the add-on fees—and particularly the $300 late penalty—make California one of the states with the steepest [traffic] fines.”
  • Because 78% of Californians need a driver’s license to get to work or as a requirement of the work itself, suspending driver’s licenses for nonpayment makes it difficult for many families to support themselves.
  • Driver’s license suspension for failure to pay or appear is exacerbating racial bias already present in traffic stops; African-American people in particular are 4-16 times more likely to be arrested for not paying a ticket in the Bay Area.
  • “None of the nine Bay Area counties surveyed had information about alternative options for low-income people on their websites, available by phone, or in person at the court clerk’s office.”
  • The California Traffic Tickets / Infractions Amnesty Program collected $151 per amnesty case, more than three times as much delinquent debt than other court-ordered debt collections ($45 per case).
  • Stop suspending driver’s licenses for failure to pay a ticket (i.e. as a tactic to coerce payment of fines and fees).
  • When assessing a fine, courts should inquire about a person’s ability to pay using uniform and fair guidelines for determining indigence.
  • Reduce fines to affordable amounts and/or implement day fines.
  • Increase access to alternatives to paying a fine such as substituting monetary payment for community service work, providing notices about the ability to pay process, making forms available online, and allowing for forms to be submitted online.
  • Civil assessments that are imposed for failure to appear in court should be vacated upon a showing of any good cause (in most counties, only hospitalization, incarceration, death of a family member, and military are considered good cause) or automatically cured when a person later appears in court; amend the Petition to Vacate Civil Assessment form to broaden the circumstances that constitute good cause and to provide guidance to individuals on how to establish good cause.
  • Stop arresting Californians on infraction warrants for failure to pay, or for driving on a license that is suspended for failure to pay.
Stephen Bingham, Sarah Calhoun, Annette Case, Garret Christensen, Elisa Della-Piana, Natalia Emanuel, Bo Ericsson, Michael Ginsborg, Anuthara Hegoda, Jude Pond, Brittany Stonesifer, Gene Tien, Theresa Zhen
Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area