California Governor Puts the Brakes on Suspended Licenses

By: Kristi Kenyon July 11, 2017
Californians can no longer have their driver's licenses suspended for failing to pay traffic tickets.
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Having your driver’s license suspended can be more than inconvenient. For those already struggling financially, it can result in the loss of a job, causing a move further into poverty. For these reasons, California Governor Jerry Brown has passed new legislation changing how traffic fines are handled.

The bill, SB-185, was championed by state Senator Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys), and eliminates a court’s option to suspend a driver’s license strictly for unpaid traffic fines. Instead, the court must provide alternative options, including fine reduction and/or a “reasonable payment plan”.

The new law went into effect July 1. It will not apply to Californians with currently suspended licenses, and residents can still lose their licenses through other infractions, such as failing to appear in court.

Gov. Brown saw no benefit of suspending licenses due to unpaid traffic fines; in fact, he found no strong connection between license suspensions and fine collection. Brown added that it was more likely to cause low-income residents to be unable to work or get their children to school.

Opponents of the measure claim that license suspension is a useful tool to force drivers to pay their traffic fines. Doing away with it removes the incentive for offenders to pay up, the California Association of Counties claimed in a June letter to Hertzberg.

However, supporters insist that suspending a license actually makes it harder for drivers to pay their fines; the suspension prevents their ability to make money, and possibly leads to job loss. Additionally, extra surcharges compound for tardy payment, causing the initial fine amount to skyrocket. A failure-to-signal ticket, for example, starts out at $35; after surcharges and late fines, the ticket  could cost up to $238.

Hertzberg is currently working on advancing a related bill giving those who can’t afford to pay their fines the option to request a lower fine or do community service. This new policy is a good start for better state laws that stop punishing people for being poor, he said.

“The privilege of driving should not be connected to the size of your wallet,” Hertzberg stated.

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