Criminal justice reform system advocates are celebrating a victory in their battle to stop courts from suspending driver’s licenses of low-income people who can’t afford to pay their court fines.
San Francisco Superior Court cleared 88,000 suspended driver’s license cases on Tuesday for certain people who failed to appear in traffic court, KPIX-TV reported.
Mayor London Breed, who championed the policy, said San Francisco is the first city in the nation to voluntarily enact the rule. The city had eliminated the practice of suspending licenses for those who didn’t appear in court two years ago. But it lacked the resources to clear previous cases. It cost the city $15,000 to clear the 88,000-case backlog.
The new policy applies only to people whose licenses were suspended for failing to appear in traffic court over fines. It does not affect reckless drivers who are a danger on the road.
“We want driver’s license suspension to be about safety,” said Elisa Della-Piana, legal director for Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. “For people who are low-wage workers, for communities of color, this is a punishment for being poor.”
The mayor fired off this tweet that explains her position on this issue.
Advocates say that revoking licenses of people who can’t afford fees and fines is part of a system that exploits the poor and people of color.
President Barack Obama‘s administration investigated municipalities, such as Ferguson, Missouri, and shed light on a system of using the police and courts to raise revenue by targeting African-Americans for traffic violations. When people can’t pay, the courts add fines on top of the original amount. Municipalities also confiscated debtors’ wages and property over unpaid fines.
Last July, a federal court, for the first time, blocked a state from revoking driver’s licenses from people who can’t afford to pay court fees. U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger ruled that it is unconstitutional for Tennessee to continue revoking driver’s licenses from poverty-stricken individuals over unpaid court fees, The Tennessean reported.
“This is the first decision in the nation to hold that these kinds of suspensions or revocations without consideration of a person’s ability to pay are unconstitutional,” said Claudia Wilner, one of the attorneys involved in the case. She predicted that it will have a national impact.