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‘License Suspension Should Never be Punishment for Poverty:' ACLU, Advocates Sue DMV

The remedy, the suit offers, is to stop suspending licenses for a failure to pay a traffic ticket unless the court can adequately determine that the driver has the ability to pay the ticket.

Civil rights advocates filed a lawsuit Tuesday in Alameda County Court seeking to prevent the California Department of Motor Vehicles from suspending driver's licenses for people who can't afford to pay traffic fines.

The suit alleges that the DMV can suspend licenses only when a driver has "willfully'' chosen not to pay a traffic fine or appear in court. The plaintiffs argue that an inability to pay does not constitute a willful failure. They say for many people, a driver's license is essential to get to work, child care or a medical appointment. The remedy, the suit offers, is to stop suspending licenses for a failure to pay a traffic ticket unless the court can adequately determine that the driver has the ability to pay the ticket.

"No one should be forced to choose between keeping their driver's license and putting food on the table for their family," Rebekah Evenson, director of Bay Area Legal Aid's litigation and advocacy, said in a statement. "The DMV must stop punishing people for being poor."

The DMV declined comment on Wednesday citing pending litigation.

Tuesday's suit follows other lawsuits targeting what the civil rights advocates call other unfair license suspension practices of traffic courts in Solano and Los Angeles Counties — these cases are still pending. The lawsuit also comes after a demand letter was send to the DMV and the California State Transportation Agency on Aug. 1.

As an example of what happens to people when they get their licenses suspended, the lawsuit portrayed the downward spiral of Guillermo Hernandez, of Contra Costa County, one of the four plaintiffs in the suit.

Hernandez received a traffic citation in 2013 for failing to update his address on his driver's license and not having valid registration, according to the suit. He went to court twice to try to address his ticket, and both times he was told he was "not in the system," the suit states. Despite these attempts, his license was later suspended. 

Lawyers said that Hernandez has been unable to find steady work since he lost his small business in 2013 after a robbery, and he was never afforded the opportunity to explain his financial circumstances to the court. Yet, the suit alleges, he was told he had to pay more than $900 to get his license reinstated.

The suit alleges that each plaintiff in the suit couldn't pay the "exorbitant fines" associated with routine traffic tickets, and had his or her license suspended without an assessment of their ability to pay. The DMV estimates that more than 600,000 Californians have suspended driver's licenses for failure to pay or failure to appear.

Also, whether or not a driver is an undocumented immigrant or not, shouldn't matter, according to American Civil Liberties attorney Christine Sun.

"Immigration status does not affect a person’s rights in traffic court, and criminal court generally," she said. "Undocumented immigrants have the same right to due process in traffic court and criminal court as all other people in the United States."

California does allow undocumented persons to obtain driver’s licenses. In 2013, Gov. Brown signed into law, AB 60, which allows for any resident of California to obtain a license, regardless of immigration status.

The plaintiffs are being backed by the ACLU of Northern California, Bay Area Legal Aid,  Clare Pastore of the University of Southern California Gould School of Law, the The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, the  Western Center on Law & Poverty, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP and the East Bay Community Law Center.

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