Predatory Practices by Private Companies Can Hold a License Hostage for Years
LOS ANGELES – The consequences of DUI convictions are not supposed to have anything to do with income level. But in California, predatory policies by companies operating mandatory DUI education programs can impose fees that can take years for low-income drivers to pay off.
And in the meantime, while drivers with the means to pay the fees — which are above and beyond fines paid to the criminal justice system — are back on the road, the companies can hold the licenses of poorer people hostage.
Today, the ACLU Foundation of Southern California releases a comprehensive report: “So Many Roadblocks: How California’s Program Fees System Traps Low-Income Drivers.”
The DUI programs — of which there are 55 listed in Los Angeles County — make comparison shopping nearly impossible, even though they charge substantially divergent fees. And they routinely ignore regulations requiring them to offer ability-to-pay plans.
“This system traps Californians in poverty and exposes them to criminal consequences that people with more money don’t have to confront,” said Adrienna Wong, senior staff attorney at the ACLU SoCal. “It’s discrimination on the basis of wealth.”
The report, a year in the making, closely examines the fee structures and policies of the sanctioned DUI programs in Los Angeles County that are supposed to be overseen by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and the seven state-licensed programs run by county governments across the state that are supposed to be overseen by the California Department of Health Care Services.
But that oversight is woefully lacking, the report found, to the point that the programs can disregard regulations with abandon.
Transparency in pricing is almost entirely non-existent, the report found. Only two of the programs listed in L.A. County stated their charges online. And the vast majority of the rest refused to disclose costs unless the potential enrollee did an in-person visit. This can make comparison shopping especially difficult because program seekers can’t legally drive themselves.
Although state regulations require DUI programs to offer ability to pay protections, many programs do not make the existence of reduced-payment options known to potential participants. And 22 of the programs said they flat out refuse to consider an enrollee’s ability to pay unless the enrollment fee — which can be as much as $400 — is paid first.
Even if those hurdles are met, getting the paperwork and other materials required is often daunting, especially for a person who is unhoused. “Some programs are ignorant about how hard this is,” said an advocate quoted in the report, “but some seem to know exactly how hard it is.”
The programs are required by the state to offer group counseling, face-to-face interviews, and educational sessions. The charges for these sessions are so wildly divergent that the most expensive three-month program examined in the study cost more than the least expensive six-month program.
Programs are allowed by the state to assess extra fees for a variety of situations including a missed class, late payment, and reinstatement into a program. But again, the costs can vary greatly. For example, one program charges $20 for reinstatement which another charges $80.
The report quotes Amy, a driver who pleaded no contest to a first-time DUI. But she could not pay even the enrollment fee for a program and the situation had disastrous consequences. “At this point in my life I still thought I had a chance to get out from under my mistakes,” she said. And though she tried to enroll in a program several times, she was “never informed that there may have been programs I qualified for to help me pay for it.”
Nearly a decade after her plea in court, she still has not gotten her license reinstated, greatly limiting her chances to get a good job. Earlier this month, the ACLU submitted a complaint to the Department of Health Care Services on Amy’s behalf, describing numerous violations of law by the only DUI program in San Luis Obispo County.
The report includes several recommendations for the near term, including the elimination of debt-based driver’s license suspensions and increased transparency of DUI program costs.
For the long term, the report urges that DUI programs be publicly funded.