LOS ANGELES — Under a settlement signed, the Los Angeles County Superior Court has agreed to procedures to ensure that no motorists will be saddled with traffic fines they simply cannot afford to pay.
The lawsuit Alvarado v. Los Angeles Superior Court, filed in 2016, alleged that courts throughout Los Angeles County illegally assumed that failure to pay fines for littering, jaywalking, and minor traffic tickets, which typically amounted to $500 or more, was always "willful" behavior, regardless of the actual ability of the drivers to make the payment. Without examining the person's ability to pay and offering reduced payment plans or other options, courts would then notify the Department of Motor Vehicles, which automatically suspended the driver's license.
The plaintiffs in the case, Gloria Mata Alvarado and Toneshawa Jones, had their licenses suspended simply because the court never asked whether they were too poor to pay the fine.
"Courts are required by law to look at a person's ability to pay a fine before ordering the suspension of a driver's license," said lead counsel Antionette Dozier, a Western Center on Law and Poverty senior attorney. "In Los Angeles, they didn't follow the law."
"This settlement is a victory for low-income Los Angeles residents, who have been facing skyrocketing costs of living in recent years," said Devon Porter, Liman fellow and attorney with the ACLU Foundation of Southern California. "Now, courts are required to provide an accessible process for people to get traffic tickets reduced based on financial hardship."
"Tens of thousands of people, primarily poor African American and Latino residents, illegally lost their right to drive,” said Lisa James, an organizer with the community organization All of Us or None. “That meant they were prevented from fully living their lives, leading to lost jobs, missed doctor's appointments, and other personal and family difficulties."
During the course of the litigation, thanks in part to advocacy by some of the organizations representing the plaintiffs, the governor signed legislation prohibiting license suspensions based on failure to pay traffic fines.
The settlement agreement provides that the Los Angeles Superior Court will:
- Allow all traffic/infraction defendants to demonstrate an inability to pay a fine
- Notify in writing all traffic/infraction defendants of their right to demonstrate their inability to pay a fine
- Train court personnel on the new rules
- Provide a sampling of rulings on ability-to-pay petitions that will permit' plaintiffs' counsel to effectively monitor compliance
In addition to the Western Center, plaintiffs were represented by the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, Neighborhood Legal Services of Los Angeles County, USC's Gould School of Law's Access to Justice Practicum, Rapkin & Associates LLP, and Schonbrun Seplow Harris & Hoffman LLP.