by Evan Ward
San Francisco – Mayor London N. Breed and Treasurer José Cisneros announced on April 16 that the City has collaborated with the San Francisco Superior Court to clear up to 88,000 outstanding holds placed on people’s driver’s licenses as a result of missing their traffic court date.
A working group of community, City and court leaders studied the issue as part of their work on the City’s Fines and Fees Task Force. The group determined that the primary reason people miss traffic court dates is because they cannot afford to pay their traffic tickets, which average several hundred dollars in California and are among the most expensive in the nation.
In San Francisco, a report found that residents from Bayview Hunters Point had their licenses suspended at a rate of more than three times the state average. The report revealed a racially disparate impact: Bayview Hunters Point, zip code 94124, has a relatively high rate of poverty (23.5 percent), the highest percentage of Black residents in San Francisco (35.8 percent) and a suspension rate of 6.7 percent, more than three times the state average. For context, neighboring zip code 94123, which includes the Marina District, has a substantially lower poverty rate (5.9 percent), a low percentage of Black residents (1.5 percent) and a suspension rate five times below the state average (0.4 percent).
Residents from Bayview Hunters Point had their licenses suspended at a rate of more than three times the state average.
The working group concluded that the practice is overly harsh and punitive, and research shows that taking away someone’s driver’s license makes it difficult for them to get or keep a job.
San Francisco is the first locality in the nation to lift all outstanding driver’s license holds for individuals who miss traffic court dates. The San Francisco Superior Court ended the practice two years ago, but lacked the resources and capacity to lift the tens of thousands of driver’s license holds that had already been filed with the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). The City partnered with the courts to bring resources and capacity to the effort and remove this barrier to employment for thousands of local residents.
“For many people, losing their driver’s license means not being able to pick up their kids, go to work, pay off their bills, and get back on their feet,” said Breed. “It is an unnecessarily punitive measure that is ultimately counterproductive for both the City and the individual. We will continue to lead on this issue because it is a matter of equity in how we treat all San Franciscans, and ensuring that we are not harming our low-income residents over small violations.”
“For many people, losing their driver’s license means not being able to pick up their kids, go to work, pay off their bills, and get back on their feet,” said Breed. “It is an unnecessarily punitive measure that is ultimately counterproductive for both the City and the individual. We will continue to lead on this issue.”
“We collaborated with the courts to take this action because we believe that suspending people’s driver’s licenses for missing their traffic court date places an undue burden on low-income residents, creates barriers to employment, and can keep people in a cycle of poverty and debt that is hard to escape,” said San Francisco Treasurer José Cisneros, whose office houses The Financial Justice Project, which staffed the Fines and Fees Task Force.
“Of course, we need to have consequences and penalties when people break the law or don’t follow the rules. In the work we’ve done locally on fine and fee reform and with the Financial Justice Project, we’ve come to realize that we can hold people accountable without putting them in financial distress.”
San Francisco’s action builds on efforts by local leaders in 2015, when San Francisco Superior Court became the first court in the California to stop the suspension of driver’s licenses for Failure to Pay (FTP) traffic fines. Other counties followed suit, and Gov. Jerry Brown ended the use of this onerous penalty in 2017. Legislation to stop the suspension of driver’s licenses for the inability to pay traffic fines is now pending in several states, according to the Fines and Fees Justice Center.
“San Francisco is once again at the forefront of meaningful criminal and economic justice reform. Suspending a driver’s license is a draconian sanction that should only be imposed because of dangerous driving,” said Lisa Foster, co-director of the Fines and Fees Justice Center in Washington, D.C.
“Missing a court date has nothing to do with dangerous driving and everything to do with poverty. Often people don’t come to court because they know they can’t afford to pay the exorbitant fines and fees the California Legislature has imposed. Taking a license only makes it harder for people get to court, harder to get to work, and harder to take care of themselves and their families. We applaud San Francisco for ending this harmful practice.”
“Losing a driver’s license can be catastrophic for families, as 78 percent of Californians drive to work. License suspensions become incarceration for people who drive their kids to school or parents to the doctor,” said Elisa Della Piana, legal director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the Bay Area. “These consequences are too high for simply missing a court date, especially when many courts still require payment of late fees before allowing people into traffic court. We urge other jurisdictions to follow San Francisco’s lead in this important reform.”
“Losing a driver’s license can be catastrophic for families, as 78 percent of Californians drive to work. License suspensions become incarceration for people who drive their kids to school or parents to the doctor,” said Elisa Della Piana, legal director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the Bay Area.
While San Francisco has restored access to thousands of driver’s licenses, hundreds of thousands of people across California still have their license suspended for failing to appear in court to pay their traffic tickets. Courts across California submit approximately 41,000 requests per month to the DMV to put a hold on driver’s licenses as a result of missing a traffic court date.
“San Francisco’s decision to stop suspending driver’s licenses for failures to appear and to lift thousands of license suspensions is good for the city and its residents and puts San Francisco on the right side of the law,” said Rebekah Evenson, director of Litigation and Advocacy for Bay Area Legal Aid. “Suspension of a driver’s license is a severe penalty and should be reserved for severe offenses. For our low income clients, loss of a license often means loss of a job, and with it the means to economic stability.”
The San Francisco Superior Court recently adopted ability-to-pay guidelinesfor traffic court that provide discounts on citations to people with lower incomes. More information about these discounts for low-income residents is available on their website. The Financial Justice Project and many community groups collaborated with the San Francisco Superior Court to develop these ability to pay guidelines.
Get your license back
If your driver’s license was suspended for failing to appear in the San Francisco Traffic Court, you may be able to get your license back. To find out if your driver’s license suspension has been lifted, call the DMV Mandatory Actions Unit at 916-657-6525 to find out if you have any other holds on your record. You will need your name, date of birth and driver’s license number.
Evan Ward, a journalist in the Mayor’s Office of Communications, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.