Senate Passes Legislation to Prevent Driver’s License Suspensions for Minor Offenses
SB 881 follows 2015 legislation that helped establish a traffic amnesty program
SACRAMENTO – The Senate today passed legislation by Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, that stops the automatic suspension of driver’s licenses for people who fail to appear in court on minor traffic offenses or fail to pay fines for those offenses.
SB 881, which was approved on a 32-7 bipartisan vote, ends an overly harsh punishment that does not fit the offense and sends many people of modest means into a downward spiral that can result in losing a job or even ending up in jail. Presently, 612,000 Californians have a suspended driver’s license due to failure to appear or failure to pay on traffic tickets, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles.
“It makes no sense to suspend driver’s licenses for people because they are too poor to pay a fine or missed a court appearance on a minor traffic offense,” Hertzberg said. “We must restore common sense to our justice system and give working Californians a chance to make amends without jeopardizing their jobs or their families.”
Across the country, rising court fines, fees and penalties for minor offenses have proved especially burdensome to the poor and working poor, who can end up losing their driver’s licenses , jobs and freedom – sometimes going to jail – simply because they could not pay a fine or failed to appear. A New Jersey study found that 42 percent of people whose driver’s licenses were suspended lost their jobs as a result of the suspension.
According to a report last week by the U.S. Federal Reserve, 46 percent of Americans don’t have $400 to pay for an emergency expense and would have to sell something or borrow money to cover the cost. Traffic tickets often cost hundreds of dollars and can exceed $400, depending on the offense.
In California, driver’s license suspensions due to failure to appear or pay have hit minorities and the poor at a disproportionately higher rate, according to a report issued last month by a coalition of civil rights groups. In Los Angeles County, for instance, African Americans account for 9 percent of the population but made up 32 percent of those arrested for driving with a suspended license over a two-year period ending September 2015.
SB 881 follows Hertzberg’s landmark measure, SB 405, and Gov. Jerry Brown’s related budget proposal that together established a new traffic amnesty program on Oct. 1, 2015. The program allows people to talk to a judge if they want to before paying fines, restores driver’s licenses to those with a payment plan and reduces exorbitant fee debts by taking a person’s income into account.
In the first three months of that program, more than 58,000 Californians have received amnesty fine and fee reductions and more than 40,000 have requested reinstatement of their driver’s licenses, according to the California Judicial Council.
The bill is co-sponsored by the Western Center on Law & Poverty and the American Civil Liberties Union of California.
“The Senate’s vote to pass SB 881 is a powerful statement that the days of California’s debtor prison are coming to an end,” said Michael Herald, a legislative advocate for the Western Center on Law & Poverty. “It is a hopeful sign for hundreds of thousands of Californians who have had their family and work lives disrupted due to a suspended license simply because they were too poor.”
The legislation does not apply to offenses involving reckless driving or driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
SB 881 goes next to the Assembly for consideration.
Bob Hertzberg, chair of the Senate Committee on Governance and Finance, represents nearly 1 million San Fernando Valley residents of Senate District 18, which includes part of Burbank and the following communities in Los Angeles: Arleta, Granada Hills, Hansen Dam, Lake View Terrace, Mission Hills, North Hills, North Hollywood, part of Northridge, Pacoima, Panorama City, Sherman Oaks, Studio City, part of Sun Valley, Sylmar, Toluca Lake, Valley Glen, Valley Village, Van Nuys, the City of San Fernando and Universal City. See a district map at http://sd18.senate.ca.gov/district. After serving in the Assembly from 1996-2002, including two years as Speaker, Hertzberg invested in solar, wind and electric-car projects; and worked for structural changes in government through the Think Long Committee of California. Learn more at www.senate.ca.gov/hertzberg.
MEDIA CONTACT: Andrew LaMar
Senator Robert M. Hertzberg
Capitol Building, Room 4038
Sacramento, CA 95814