Events in Ferguson Shine Light on a California Problem

Prior to the U.S. Department of Justice uncovering a history of racial profiling and discrimination in Ferguson, MO, a group of attorneys filed suit claiming that municipal courts in the town were arresting and imprisoning a large number of people for unpaid traffic tickets and other minor offenses. In 2013, 33,000 arrest warrants were issued for residents, earning the city $2.6 million. Ferguson is not the only town in America profiting off of residents’ debt. This is a problem here in California as well. Four million people in the state have suspended licenses for failing to pay citations, and are deeply in debt because of this.

Traffic Courts & Inequality

A coalition of civil rights groups issued a report entitled “Not Just a Ferguson Problem: How Traffic Courts Drive Inequality in California.” The report found that a driver who commits offenses as small as littering or driving without a seatbelt is subject to a $490 fine. Many Americans are not able to afford such a fine, and if the driver does not pay the fine in full quickly enough or misses a court appearance; the punishment is a suspended license. This creates a real problem for many Californians – they only way they can pay off their fine and lift the suspension on their driver’s license is to drive without a license to work. They then risk even more fines ($300-$1,000) and six months in prison for getting caught driving with a suspended license. This creates a cycle of debt that many are unable to break.

For many people, driving is often the only way for them to get to work or school. California’s system of suspending licenses for those who cannot pay a citation fine can result in the inability to make ends meet. This is also due to the fact that when people cannot pay off tickets or appear in court to contest a citation, they are then fined a $300 fee in addition to the $490 for the ticket, and the now suspended license. To frustrate matters, if someone misses a payment deadline they are automatically banned from contesting in a court appearance until the violation is paid in full. Those with suspended licenses cannot appear in court to explain why they could not pay on time, or learn about potential payment plans or alternatives to payment (i.e. community service). Many do not even receive notices in the mail for their first appearance.

Many that are in fact able to appear in court to explain why they are unable to pay their ticket aren’t exempt from extra fees. Since they are unable to pay their citation in full, their only choice is to set up a payment plan, which will require minimum payments set by private collection agencies. Many can only pay off the fee that goes to the collection agency each month, further escalating the debt cycle.

Furthering the problem, those with unpaid fines build up a poor credit score, making it difficult to rent or buy a home. Since arrest warrants are often issued for failure to pay municipal violations this makes job searching extra challenging.

Court ordered debt has reached $10 billion in California. The report found that 17 percent of California driver’s licenses are tied to a revenue collecting scheme resulting from inability to pay fines for minor municipal citations. The U.S. Census reported in 2014 that 8.9 million Californians live in poverty, and those are the majority of those who are unable to pay off citations. The majority of those issued citations are Black or Latino. This is a huge problem in California, with so far no sign of a break in the cycle.

If you have been experiencing paralyzing financial difficulty due to a cycle of debt that you are unable to break, it is vital to have an experienced attorney on your side. Contact The Leslie Legal Group for a consultation today.