By TAMMERLIN DRUMMOND | Bay Area News Group
August 14, 2017
Jesse Austin, a 39-year-old Antioch resident, owed more than $1,800 in unpaid tickets stemming from a traffic stop last September in Benicia. He couldn’t pay that high an amount on the $800 he earned every two weeks at a store that sold men’s grooming products. When he didn’t pay or show up in court, Solano County put a hold on his driver’s license. That in turn, he said, stopped him from getting a job as a delivery driver, better-paying work that he had done in the past.
“Not having a license has really hindered my earning ability,” said the father of six who works as a bicycle messenger in San Francisco. “You have to have one for a lot of jobs.”
Last week, Solano County Superior Court agreed to a first of its kind settlement in California that offers low-income people like Austin some relief from crushing traffic ticket debt and penalties that so often lead to a license suspension. The county now must notify drivers about alternatives to paying the full amount. Qualifying low-income residents are able to fill out a declaration of financial need and ask to pay in installments, seek a fine reduction or request community service. It’s also retroactive, which means drivers can petition the court for financial relief to get a license suspension lifted. The new policy applies to non-criminal violations.
“When you suspend a person’s license there is supposed to be a finding of willfulness,” said Sarah Williams, a staff attorney with Rubicon Programs, a Contra Costa County-based nonprofit that led a coalition of Bay Area legal aid organizations in filing a class action lawsuit last year. “When someone doesn’t pay a ticket that doesn’t mean it’s willful if they can’t afford to pay it.”