Press Release

Bill to Stop Automatic Suspension of Driver’s Licenses Passes Senate

The bill follows on Hertzberg’s work to restore fairness to California’s criminal justice system and roll back overly harsh penalties

May 31, 2017

SACRAMENTO – The Senate today passed legislation by Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, to prevent the automatic suspension of driver’s licenses for people who are unable to pay fines or fees for minor traffic tickets and require courts to determine violators’ ability to pay before setting fine amounts.

SB 185 states that your economic status shouldn’t determine your access to justice and ability to make amends. In addition, any previously suspended licenses must be reinstated for violators who make a good faith effort to begin payment plans.

The Senate passed the bill on a bipartisan 34-6 vote, and it goes next to the Assembly for consideration.

“Large fines for minor traffic infractions force many people to go into debt and lose their driver’s licenses, and that can result in them losing their jobs. That’s a punishment that doesn’t fit the offense,” Hertzberg said. “This legislation restores basic fairness and common sense to fines and fees for minor traffic offenses.”

Gov. Jerry Brown has endorsed the idea in his proposed spending plan for the 2017-18 fiscal year. In the budget plan, he wrote: “There does not appear to be a strong connection between suspending someone’s drivers license and collecting their fine or penalty. Often, the primary consequence of a drivers license suspension is the inability to legally drive to work or take one’s children to school.”

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 traffic fine or failed to appear for a court hearing. 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 issued last year 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.

The state’s traffic fines and fees are among the highest in the nation and create hardships for many middle-class Californians, according a report issued in May by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. In particular, the high fines disproportionately impact people of color, the report said.

SB 185 is sponsored by a coalition of social justice groups that includes the Western Center on Law and Poverty, American Civil Liberties Union of California and East Bay Community Law Center.

“Under current law, when people get their licenses suspended because they can’t afford to pay the cost of the ticket, they can’t get their license back until they pay off the fine,” said Mike Herald, legislative advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “But for low-income people, that may mean they have to wait years before they have a valid license. SB 185 fixes that by ending suspensions when people can’t pay and making sure courts offer a fair payment plan that people can afford.”

The measure is part of Hertzberg’s ongoing efforts to restore common sense to California’s criminal justice system and roll back unfair and overly harsh penalties that hammer those of modest means.

In December, Bob Hertzberg introduced SB 10, The California Money Bail Reform Act of 2017, which aims to replace a pretrial process that often forces people with limited income to remain in jail until a court can determine their innocence or guilt but allows the wealthy to go free.

Like a driver’s license suspension, a few days in jail can cost many people their jobs and send their lives into downward spirals before a court has even determined whether they are innocent or guilty of charges filed against them.

In 2015, Hertzberg authored SB 405, which, along with Brown’s related budget proposal, established a traffic amnesty program for fees and fines incurred prior to 2013. The traffic amnesty program allowed people to talk to a judge if they wanted to before paying fines, restored driver’s licenses to those with a payment plan and reduced exorbitant fee debts by taking a person’s income into account in setting the fine amount.  

Over the course of that program, more than 205,000 Californians received amnesty fine and fee reductions and more than 192,000 had their suspended driver’s licenses reinstated, according to the California Judicial Council.

In 2016, Hertzberg went on to author SB 881, which required courts to respond to traffic amnesty claims within 90 days of the claims being filed, and SB 882, which prohibits youths from being charged with a criminal violation for transit fare evasion and instead treats the offense through an administrative process.

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Bob Hertzberg, chair of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Water, 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
Communications Director
Senator Robert M. Hertzberg
Capitol Building, Room 4038
Sacramento, CA 95814
(916) 651-4018

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