This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
SEARCH/BACK to search results
This is the property of the Daily Journal Corporation and fully protected by copyright. It is made available only to Daily Journal subscribers for
personal or collaborative purposes and may not be distributed, reproduced, modified, stored or transferred without written permission. Please click
“Reprint” to order presentation-ready copies to distribute to clients or use in commercial marketing materials or for permission to post on a website.
Thursday, May 8, 2014
A judicial dead end for California's
When we think of influential
courts, the Supreme Court
typically comes to mind first. Yet
for many low-income
individuals, a court much further
down the judicial food-chain
actually holds the most sway
over their lives. Traffic court which for the majority of
Californians is just a nuisance
they may have to contend with at some point - wields enormous influence over the
lives of poor people. In fact, when run like a bureaucracy rather than as a means of
delivering justice, traffic court has the power to block low-income individuals from ever
extricating themselves from poverty and achieving self-sufficiency.
Oren Sellstrom is legal director
of the Lawyers~ Committee for
Civil Rights of the San
Francisco Bay Area.
Consider the case of "Maria A.," a single mother in San Francisco who until recently
had been supporting her family by working in construction, a job that requires a driver's
license. When she received three traffic tickets, she was unable to pay them
immediately since she was using her limited income to feed and clothe her two
children. As a result, the San Francisco traffic court ordered her driver's license
suspended and placed her in the ultimate Catch-22: She must pay off her entire debt
before the court will reinstate her license. But without her license, her employer won't
hire her back, so she has no way of paying off her debt. Nor will the court allow her to
perform community service, since her debt has been sent to collections. In fact, she
cannot even go before a judge to request any kind of common-sense solution to this
vicious cycle; unless she posts bail for the full amount she owes, the court will not
even schedule her matter.
Maria's situation is unfortunately not uncommon. As the Brookings Institution has
found, driver's license suspensions are a direct cause of unemployment for the
working poor. Not only does the suspension impact a person's ability to travel to work,
many jobs require driving as a core function, such as delivery or transport, or as a
necessary component of the work, such as travel between job sites. For many other
employers, a valid driver's license is seen as an indicator of reliability, and applicants
without one are simply screened out of the applicant pool. Without the ability to find
work, many of these individuals have no other option but to rely on public assistance.
This outcome benefits no one. Those saddled with court debt and effectively
prevented from working begin to view the court system not as a rational institution that
furthers justice, but rather as a bureaucratic obstacle that stands in the way of any
attempt at self-sufficiency. Taxpayers end up footing the bill for public aid - often for
individuals who have jobs waiting for them, if they could only get their licenses back.
And most ironically, the court system - which theoretically suspends licenses as a way
Questions and Comments
to increase debt collection - puts itself in a position where it will never get paid. You
can't squeeze blood from an unemployed stone.
Are there solutions to these problems? Yes, and they are surprisingly easy to
implement. For example, some counties, such as Alameda County, lift driver's license
suspensions if individuals can demonstrate that they need their license to gain or keep
employment and if they set up a plan to use the resulting income for repayment. That
makes sense - give someone the opportunity to get a job, so that she will have money
to satisfy her debts. Other counties, such as Contra Costa County, have "clear your
record" days where judges hear the cases of low-income people who have accrued
court-related debt during rough periods in their lives (e.g., unemployment,
homelessness, addiction), but are now ready to turn their lives around. Rather than
barring the courthouse door unless individuals pay off all their debts first, these courts
recognize that justice sometimes requires creative thinking. These approaches are
cost-effective as well, since they increase the likelihood that fines and assessments
will be paid.
Unfortunately, many other traffic courts throughout the state are stuck in
bureaucratic mode and can't think "outside the box" towards this type of commonsense solution. San Francisco, for example, is actually poised to move further in the
wrong direction, having recently proposed changes to its local rules that would
entrench its punitive practices. Civil rights groups and social service organizations
serving low-income San Franciscans recently asked the full court to reject these
proposed changes, and the court will soon decide whether or not to do so.
Given the immense human cost at stake, how do traffic courts end up functioning
more like single-minded debt collectors than arms of justice? Certainly bureaucracy
and inertia is a part of the reason. But it is also that courts are increasingly looking at
their own bottom line. In this era of budgetary cut-backs, collecting court-related debt
begins to be seen not so much as a way to mete out justice but rather as a moneymaking mechanism to keep the courts afloat.
No one denies the need for adequate court funding - and in fact organizations
serving low-income communities have been among the most vocal in making this plea.
But revenue-generation cannot come at the expense of access to justice, or it
threatens to undermine the integrity of the court system as a whole. Particularly where
such efforts are actually counter-productive - making it more difficult for individuals to
become self-sufficient and pay off their court-related debts - they must be stopped.
Judicial officers must recognize the outsize influence that traffic court has over lowincome people's lives - and then work towards common-sense and cost-effective
Oren Sellstrom is legal director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the
San Francisco Bay Area.
HOME : MOBILE SITE : CLASSIFIEDS : EXPERTS/SERVICES : MCLE : DIRECTORIES : SEARCH : PRIVACY : LOGOUT