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ACLU Sues CA Court for Suspending Driver Licenses of the Poor

By Jonathan R. Tung, Esq. on June 20, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

When Henry Washington was given a citation for driving an unregistered vehicle, the ensuing fine hit him harder than it would many Californians with more adequate means. After all, the reason he purchased the vehicle was to drive his brother to and from his required medical appointments. But the car couldn't pass smog. He choose to drive a dirty car to get his brother to his appointments. Soon, his license was suspended because he couldn't pay the fine.

This area between a rock and a hard place is all too common for many of California's poor, and the ACLU has recently filed a suit seeking some relief for those most affected.

"Hellhole of Desperation"

Mr. Washington, who also happens to be a named plaintiff in the ACLU suit against the Solano County Superior Court in Northern California, is just one of many persons in the state who have complained that the state's traffic system unfairly burdens the poor and those most unable to afford the hefty fines of the traffic court system. This issue is reminiscent of the current debate over the appropriateness of bail and its burden on the poor. The suit argues that Mr. Washington's suspension is a violation of his due process and other constitutional rights.

Just last year, Gov. Brown announced an amnesty program protecting some drivers, but not before digging at the state's traffic court as being a "hellhole of desperation."

Indeed, Mr. Brown's comments are not too far off the mark for many of the nation's poor -- not only in traffic court, but in the court bail system as well.

Inability Is Not Willfulness

Rebekah Evenson, a lawyer with California's Bay Area Legal Aid explained how a car is an economic necessity for most people. The ACLU complaint argues that suspensions like Washington's are invalid because the court system cannot suspend one's license because of an inability to pay. Rather, the proper element for suspension is "willful" failure to pay a fine, not the inability to do so. The complaint demands a halt to the practice, or in the alternative, at least proper notice to the defendants of the existence of an installment plan or a court determination of their indigence.

The ACLU has been on a campaign to halt the license suspensions in counties across the state.

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