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Traffic tickets may not seem like a civil rights matter, but they were important enough for civil liberties groups to take action in Northern California.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and others sued the Solano County Superior Court last year for suspending driver's licenses of people too poor to pay traffic tickets. After a year of litigation and negotiation, the parties have settled the issue.
"We were able to work with the court to find a system that will provide notice to people about their rights and ability to pay," said Raegan Joern, a staff attorney at Bay Area Legal Aid.
Under the agreement, the court will notify traffic defendants of their right to be heard about their ability to pay. It will also explain their rights to ask for a lower fine, a payment plan or community service.
The settlement resolved an issue in Solano County, but highlights a problem nationwide: traffic penalties are pushing low-income people deeper into poverty. In California alone, more than 4 million had suspended licenses for failing to pay fines in 2015.
In March, the state Department of Motor Vehicles reported that 488,00 people had driving privileges suspended for failing to pay or show up for court appearances.
The civil rights coalition argued in Solano County that courts can suspend licenses for failure to pay only if drivers "willfully" fail to pay. An inability to pay is not the same, they said in their complaint.
The attorneys have notified 17 other counties about the situation. Some have changed their practices, but others have not. The ACLU is monitoring compliance.
Meanwhile, Gov. Gerry Brown signed a budget deal that prohibits courts from suspending driver's licenses for unpaid traffic fines alone. Sen. Bog Hertzberg has introduced a bill that will allow people to ask a judge for lower fines or substitute them with community service.