Sam Levin's East Bay Express story illuminates a hidden corner in the criminal justice system: traffic courts and their contribution to inequality and social stratification.
Statewide data that Bay Area legal aid and civil rights organizations recently compiled and analyzed — along with detailed accounts from people saddled with insurmountable traffic violation debts — demonstrate that municipal courts and aggressive debt collectors in California routinely trap low-income people in poverty with exorbitant fines. Minor traffic offenses that once cost $100 now cost roughly $500, which people living paycheck to paycheck can't afford.
And when defendants miss a single payment or court date, the fines increase exponentially — and their driver's licenses are suspended. In those cases, the courts also frequently block defendants from having a trial unless they post full bail, which means innocent people or those with extenuating life circumstances often can't even present their cases to a judge.
Over the past eight years, there have been 4.2 million cases in which the state suspended driver's licenses because of people's failure to appear or pay fines in court, according to the East Bay Community Law Center, a nonprofit that provides legal services to defendants in traffic court. That means an estimated 17 percent of adults in California currently have suspended licenses for missing a hearing or payment deadline.