Western Center on Law & Poverty

Western Center on Law & Poverty fights for justice for low-income Californians by improving the public policy systems that affect their lives. We focus on health care, affordable housing, racial justice, public benefits, and access to justice issues, and we attain system-wide solutions for our state's most vulnerable residents. We educate policymakers and stakeholders, bring impact litigation in state and federal courts, sponsor legislation, conduct budget advocacy, promote better programs and policies at administrative agencies, and provide consultation and trainings to the State's legal services programs and community-based organizations.

THE CASE: Western Center on Law & Poverty has recently filed two cases to protect a fundamental principle of our justice system—that a person should not be punished simply for being poor. In California, many thousands of people have their driver's licenses suspended because they are unable to pay fines and fees related to minor traffic citations and other infractions. These fines and fees are not insignificant: over the past few decades the fines and fees associated with citations have skyrocketed. What used to be $100 violation now costs nearly $500, as a result of the numerous surcharges and other fees that have been added over the years to generate revenue for the operation of the courts and other basic functions of State government. And if a person misses an initial payment deadline, the cost of a ticket can quickly balloon to $800 or more. The consequences for not being able to pay these fines and fees can be severe and life altering. Courts throughout the state routinely refer defendants to the DMV for non-payment of traffic fines and fees or a failure to appear on the traffic charges without ever considering whether these defendants had the ability to pay the fines. Upon receiving this referral, the DMV is required by statute to suspend the person's driver's license. As of the end of 2014 there were nearly 33,000 suspended licenses in Solano County alone, a county of 425,000 people, for failure to appear and failure to pay.

In Rubicon v. Solano County Superior Court Western Center aims to stop the defendant court from enhancing fines for traffic defendants and referring them to Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) for automatic license suspensions for willful failures to pay or failures to appear without determining ability to pay. In a related case, Mata Alvarado v. Superior Court of Los Angeles, Western Center seeks to compel the Los Angeles Superior Court to provide notices of action and employ court procedures that examine individuals' ability to pay prior to suspending driver's licenses for willful failures to pay. This litigation will affect hundreds of thousands of people.

These suits are the first of their kind in California and an outgrowth of two reports recently produced by Western Center and colleagues. Not Just a Ferguson Problem – How Traffic Courts Drive Inequality in California and Stopped, Fined and Arrested: Racial Bias in Policing and Traffic Courts in California explore the dramatic racial and socioeconomic disparities in driver's license suspensions and arrests related to unpaid traffic fines and fees in California. Western Center's intent is to develop legal, administrative and legislative solutions, in collaboration with state and national organizations, to reduce criminalization of poverty, including over-policing and exorbitant debt collection and, also to address the ongoing consequences of past practices.

Western Center Contact: Antionette Dozier, Senior Attorney, adozier@wclp.org or 213-235-2629.