California ended failure-to-pay suspensions on driver’s licenses in June 2017, with the passage of Assembly Bill 103. But Alameda County Superior Court is one of the first courts in the state that has directed the DMV to lift old failure-to-pay suspensions in addition to not issuing new ones.
Advocates from the legal advocacy coalition Back on the Road, California see the decision as a move in the right direction. Brittany Stonesifer, a member of the coalition and a staff attorney for Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, explained that failure-to-pay suspensions disproportionately affect low-income people who have no option but to not pay a traffic ticket.
Stonesifer said a majority of the people who lose their licenses also lose their jobs as a result. A failure-to-pay suspension can also interfere with family obligations and negatively affect people’s custody arrangements if they’re required to pick their kids up from school or other activities.
“It can trap someone in this cycle where they can’t afford to pay, and they’re being punished by the courts for that,” Stonesifer said.
Richmond resident Kao Phan is just one of many East Bay residents who fell into this cycle.
After not being able to afford a traffic ticket he received about five years ago, he was penalized with a failure-to-pay suspension. Still, needing to go to his former job in San Leandro, however, he continued to drive and ended up with more tickets for driving without a license.
He ended up with a total of four holds on his license –– two in Alameda County and two in Contra Costa County. He estimated that he owed between $5,000 and $6,000 and also found himself out of work.
“It was just hard on me because I couldn’t get a job” Phan said. “Any job that you apply to they ask for they ask for a driver’s license.”
When he entered construction trade school, he was offered a job on the condition that he could get his license back. With Phan still unable to pay the fines that he owed for the tickets, his school put him in touch with the East Bay Community Law Center, a Berkeley-based legal group that offers clinics to help people with suspended licenses.
Phan worked with staff attorney Theresa Zhen for months before he was finally able to get his license back, after the passage of AB 103.
“When I got my license, I was so happy,” Phan said. “I got my life back.”
With Alameda County Superior Court now paving the way for even more people to get their license suspensions reversed, Zhen said she hopes that people will advocate for more courts across the California to take similar action.
“None of these things happen in a vacuum,” Zhen said. “It takes a movement of lawyers, community groups, and people who are brave enough to tell their story.”