In Furtherance of Justice | Small Document, Big Impact

By Lisa Dyas March 7, 2017

Rubicon's legal team helps our participants with a wide variety of legal assistance to equip them to remove barriers that may stand in their way of achieving their long-term goals. This question and answer series with Rubicon's staff attorneys explores the many intersections between breaking the cycle of poverty and the law.

This week, In Furtherance of Justice, talks to Rubicon attorney, Pat Kaspar, about the impact that a driver's license makes for someone trying to break the cycle of poverty.  

Small Document, Big Impact

Why are suspended licenses such a pervasive problem for Rubicon participants?

It's pretty simple; almost all of our program participants are low-income, and traffic tickets are expensive. There is a small window of time in which to pay your fine, and if you miss it, the amounts increase quickly. It's much easier to pay a ticket if you don't have to weigh it against food and lodging. 

The system is also confusing and hard to navigate. The notices are confusing to everyone! Many of our participants do not understand what their options are, and if they do, they might not be comfortable asserting themselves. Many of our participants have had uncomfortable experiences with courts for a lot of reasons. 

Ultimately, poverty should not be the reason that people are not able to drive. 

If someone isn’t trying to get a job as a driver, is a suspended license really that big of a deal?

Many non-driving jobs require a driver's license. Many employers, for example, don't want you taking the bus if you need to get to a meeting. It is also much easier to look for work when you can drive. Many low-income communities are undeserved by public transportation, and not driving can significantly limit a job search. The activities of daily living like shopping, medical appointments, and childcare are also much easier when you have a license. 

What role does Rubicon’s legal team play in helping participants reinstate their licenses?

The first thing that we do is talk to the participant to find out how they lost their license in the first place. It’s helpful to understand the whole story to help figure out the best solution. The delight of this job is building trust with your client; this can take time and patience.  

Depending on the circumstances, we might be able to utilize the Amnesty Program, have a large portion of the fine waived, or set up a payment plan to help them get their license back quickly. Unfortunately, the Amnesty program is ending March 31, 2017.   Contra Costa and Alameda County also have Homeless Courts that help people get certain fees and fines forgiven. The Court experience can also be incredibly positive and affirming. As part of the process, we work closely with other Rubicon staff, advocate for reasonable payment schedules, and represent our clients in court.  Additionally, people can lose their licenses, for example, because of child support obligations or the need to complete a court-ordered DUI class.  We can help identify these situations and offer suggestions on resolving the matter.

How is the legal community working to change how fees, fines, and suspensions are handled?

It's an issue that the whole community is aware of, and we know that the problem of unpaid tickets leading to suspensions is a particular hardship for low income people. Our legal team has participated in the Contra Costa Traffic Work Group. Part of our work advocated for making traffic court more accessible. We provided feedback to the courts on traffic violation forms, for example, to make them easier to understand for our clients. Rubicon is also lead plaintiff in a lawsuit filed against Solano County to change the practice of using license suspension as a way of collecting unpaid fines. 

The work of changing the way U.S. courts approach this issue is happening across the country. There is a solid connection being made between how fees are assessed and their impact on low-income communities. A great resource to understand the problem is Not Just a Ferguson Problem, a report by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the SF Bay Area that illustrates the issues and provides potential solutions. 

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