SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA —The California Court of Appeal ruled that the Department of Motor Vehicles cannot suspend the licenses of drivers who fail to appear in court unless the DMV receives a notification of a willful failure to appear. The court’s finding that the DMV’s practice was unlawful means that likely thousands of motorists have had their licenses improperly suspended.
The plaintiffs in this statewide lawsuit—Hernandez v. California Department of Motor Vehicles—are represented by a coalition of legal aid and civil rights groups, including Bay Area Legal Aid, Western Center on Law & Poverty, The ACLU of Northern California, the USC Gould School of Law Access to Justice Practicum, The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area (LCCR), and the law firm of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP.
This ruling marks another important step in a series of reforms to traffic court procedures that harmed low-income drivers without improving public safety. These reforms include the elimination in 2017 of driver’s license suspensions based on a driver’s failure to pay their traffic ticket. In making that change to state law, Governor Brown noted 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.”
As many Californians know, losing a driver’s license is a serious consequence that has long-term ripple effects in their lives. The Court of Appeal ruling affirms that state law does not allow traffic courts and the DMV to impose this severe consequence unless the traffic court also sends a notification of a willful failure to appear.
Poverty affects drivers’ ability to show up to court in many ways. Some traffic defendants lack transportation or can’t take time off work. Those who are homeless or unstably housed may not receive a mailed notice to appear in court. In some cities, defendants can be turned away for bringing a child to court even if they have no childcare.
“With this tremendous win, someone who isn’t able to come to court because they are hospitalized, have to take care of an ill family member, or are afraid to come to court because of immigration status won’t be unfairly punished with license suspension,” said Elisa Della-Piana, Legal Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. “They won’t lose their job and fall deeper into a cycle of poverty because their license is suspended.”
Research shows that people who lose their driver’s licenses often lose their jobs, and that suspensions perpetuate and exacerbate poverty. “Most Californians need a driver’s license to work and care for their families,” said Clare Pastore, professor at the USC Gould School of Law Access to Justice Practicum, “And the importance of a driver’s license is only heightened during the current global pandemic and economic recession.”
As the country reflects on its history and the current state of policing, advocates point out that they have long highlighted the disparate impact non-safety related driver’s license suspensions have on communities of color. “The racially disparate enforcement of traffic laws must be understood within the context of over-policing and the presumption of criminality imposed on Black and Brown persons. For too long, our over-reliance on punishment at the expense of Black and Brown persons has steered us away from effective public safety practices,” said Novella Coleman, Acting Director of Litigation and Senior Litigation Counsel of Bay Area Legal Aid.
“This decision reaffirms California’s commitment to common sense traffic enforcement. Suspending the driver’s license of anyone who misses a traffic court date doesn’t make our roads safer, and it undermines people’s ability to work and care for their families,” said Rebecca Miller, attorney at the Western Center on Law & Poverty. “I hope the Legislature and Judicial Council use this decision as an opportunity to reexamine failure-to-appear suspensions and continue to make necessary reforms to California’s traffic laws.”
A recent analysis of data from the San Francisco Superior Court shows no negative impacts on collection of debt after eliminating license suspensions for unpaid traffic citations. San Francisco then went further and stopped suspending driver’s licenses for missing a traffic court date, too, clearing more than 88,000 failure-to-appear notifications that had been sent to the DMV.
“A major driver of that reform in San Francisco has been the clear consensus that failure to appear most often reflects poverty, not willful disregard for the court system,” said Anne Stuhldreher, Director of the City’s Financial Justice Project.
The case will now continue in the trial court to ensure the DMV implements policies consistent with this ruling. As a result of the Court of Appeal’s ruling, thousands of Californians may get their driver’s licenses back. “By requiring the DMV to enforce the statutes as they were actually written by the Legislature, the court has taken an important step toward removing unjust penalties that perpetuate poverty and inequality,” said William Freeman, senior counsel at the ACLU Foundation of Northern California.