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Lawsuit challenges license suspensions for LA County unpaid tickets

An LAPD motorcycle officer writes a traffic ticket in this file photo. A new lawsuit seeks to stop automatic license suspensions for low-income drivers who have unpaid traffic fines.
An LAPD motorcycle officer writes a traffic ticket in this file photo. A new lawsuit seeks to stop automatic license suspensions for low-income drivers who have unpaid traffic fines.
Chris Yarzab via Flickr

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Two plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against the Los Angeles Superior Court this week, claiming the practice of automatically suspending licenses for failure to pay traffic tickets is illegal.

The lawsuit argues that under California law, the court is only authorized to notify the Department of Motor Vehicles about a license suspension if a driver's failure to pay is willful. The court must offer a hearing to those ticketed to explain their financial circumstances, the suit claims, and those unable to pay should not have their licenses suspended.

The legal challenge comes amidst a growing movement to reform the traffic ticket system nationwide. Last year, California instituted a ticket amnesty program to allow those with unpaid tickets issued before 2013 to pay them off at a discount and have their licenses reinstated.

A recent report from the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area and other legal advocacy groups stated 4.2 million Californians had their licenses suspended over the last eight years due to unpaid tickets, resulting in a $10 billion backlog in ticket fees.

State Sen. Robert Hertzberg (D-18th District) said the license suspensions have serious implications for those with low incomes.

"You're ruining their lives. It adversely impacts their life and getting a job and all the other things they need to do," Hertzberg said.

The senator sponsored the state traffic ticket amnesty law, but its provisions only apply after tickets are issued. The lawsuit seeks to stop suspensions if drivers can show financial hardship. 

Hertzberg is backing a bill that would have a similar impact. The measure passed the Senate and is moving through the Assembly.

The California Legislative Analyst's Office estimated the legislation would cost the state millions of dollars each year in extra court fees and lost fines.