“Driving while poor.” Some critics have used the phrase to describe the injustices of the legal system as it applies to traffic penalties.
Generally, it’s used in reference to license suspension as a result of unpaid traffic fines.
State law dictates that, but there is a little-known policy in some courts, including Stanislaus Superior Court, that also can put the poor at a disadvantage, and in the end might cost them more.
If you can’t afford to pay a ticket in full, you can pay off the ticket in monthly installments for up to a year. But if you opt for a payment plan, you can’t go to traffic school, which means a point on the license and likely a higher insurance premium.
It’s a policy Debbie Larson learned when she got a $286 speeding ticket on Interstate 5 near Patterson.
“I feel they are discriminating against me because I am poor,” she said.
Stanislaus isn’t the only superior court with this policy, said Court Operations Manager Stephanie Kennedy.
The reason, she said, is that once the ticketed person finishes traffic school, the court must report to the California Department of Motor Vehicles that the case is dismissed. Once it is dismissed, that person no longer has the incentive to keep making payments and the court no longer has the leverage to suspend the driver’s license.
I contacted a number of defense attorneys about this issue, none of whom were aware of the policy. That makes sense, because attorneys rarely make professional appearances in traffic court, and if they do they’re not hired by low-income people.
One attorney, Oren Sellstrom of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco, said, “A ticket is something that might be a minor inconvenience to most but can really wreak havoc on the life of a low-income person. A driver’s license and the ability to drive is a huge issue in order to keep and maintain employment and ... driver’s license suspensions are an enormous barrier to employment.”
While a payment plan isn’t one of them, there are options that might buy you enough time to avoid losing your license and allow you to attend traffic school.
The first step is to immediately begin setting aside money with which to pay your ticket. While you can get up to five additional months to pay the fine, it must be be paid all at once, in full.
From the date of the violation, you have 30 to 45 days to pay the fine, but anyone, for any reason, can get a 30-day extension, Kennedy said.
After that, you can appeal to the traffic commissioner to pay the fine at the end of the 90 days allotted to finish the school.
“If an individual gets the 90 days from the commissioner to complete traffic school and pay the fine, they can go back before the court to get an additional 30-day extension if it’s getting close to the 90-day due date and they need some more time,” Kennedy said.
Appeals can be made by email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or in person during your court date or a walk-in appearance Mondays and Tuesdays at 8 a.m., 9:30 a.m. or 1 p.m.; Wednesdays at 8 a.m. or 9:30 a.m.; and Thursdays at 1 p.m.