Traffic fines and court fees seen as a civil rights issue

SpeedTrapA bill just introduced in the state Senate would make it easier for some people who have lost their driver’s licenses to get them back.

Senator Bob Hertzberg says California cities and counties have been piling on fees for minor traffic violations to make up for revenue that was lost during the recession. And he says that’s having a devastating effect on many Californians who can no longer legally drive to work.

The bill by the Van Nuys Democrat would restore a driver’s license if it was suspended for nonviolent offenses – and if the driver agrees to a court-ordered debt collection program. Current law requires people to pay all of their fees before they can get their license back.

trafficticketThe proposed law would work hand-in-hand with a limited traffic-fee amnesty proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown. That program would cut fees and fines in half for eligible participants. State officials say uncollected court-ordered debt has risen to more than $10 billion, and Brown says the amnesty program would allow the state to collect at least some of that money.

Hertzberg’s office cited a study released this week by a coalition of civil rights groups that says more than four million California drivers lost their licenses because of unpaid fines between 2006 and 2013. Just 71,000 people managed to get their licenses back.

The report says the suspensions disproportionally affect minorities and have pushed poor people deeper into poverty. Those were also among the issues cited in a recent Justice Department investigation that looked at law enforcement practices in the city of Ferguson, Missouri, following the police shooting of Michael Brown last year.