How a minor ticket can cost you your driver's license

A catch-22 is tripping up millions of Americans who happen to be too poor to pay increasingly expensive traffic fines and other minor tickets.

In California, 4.2 million residents have had their licenses suspended during the past eight years because they haven't been able to pay their tickets for traffic violations or minor infractions such as loitering, according to a new report from the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, a civil legal aid organization. The problem for poor workers, the group notes, is that without a driver's license, many are let go from their jobs, making it even harder to settle their fines.

The report's publication comes amid growing awareness of how some police departments and municipal courts are looking to citizens to buoy up coffers through increased ticketing. The Justice Department last month issued a scathing report about Ferguson, Missouri, the site of protests last year for the shooting of teenager Michael Brown by a police officer, condemning the city's enforcement practices for focusing on revenue generation rather than on public safety needs.

In California, fines for traffic tickets have skyrocketed during recent years, thanks to add-on fees like a "night court assessment" and "EMS fund." That means a $100 ticket can end up actually costing $479, the Lawyers' Committee Report noted. For poor workers, that ticket can lead to a choice between necessities such as food or rent or settling their bill in full. If they're unable to pay up, their licenses are suspended, often for minor issues such as truancy, vandalism or tickets for broken tail lights.

"Time and again, clients were coming to us with suspended driver's licenses, and no way of getting them reinstated, short of a full lump-sum payment of thousands of dollars," said Meredith Desautels, staff attorney in the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights' racial justice department. "At this point in time, it's a crisis for the folks that are trying to work and support families."

Having a valid driver's license is often a requirement for many jobs, such as in construction, while poorer residents rely on their cars to commute from work to their homes given California's sprawling cities and lack of public transportation.

The impact of car ownership on earnings and employment is substantial, with research finding that a valid driver's license is a more accurate predictor of sustained employment than a GED diploma. Owning a car lifts earned income as much as $127 per month, according to another study cited by the report. Cutting workers off from their source of income perpetuates a cycle of poverty, Desautels noted. Some end up on public assistance, she added.

"It seems like a completely contradictory policy," she noted. "Our clients come to us to say, 'I owe this money, but I can't pay it.' There's no way to do it without a driver's license."

The policies don't even appear to be paying off for the state. While total collections of court-ordered debt has increased 29 percent $1.8 billion in 2011-12 from three years earlier, its unpaid court-ordered debt surged 70 percent to $10.2 billion at the same time. That means the state is accruing unpaid debts at a faster rate than it's collecting, possibly because many of its low-wage workers can't afford those $479 traffic tickets.

"We need broad policy changes," Desautels said. "No. 1 is to stop using license suspension as a debt collection tool."

Fine amounts could be pegged according to income, creating a progressive ticket system such as in Finland, where speeding fines are based on a person's income. Flat-rate fines in the U.S. tend to bite lower and mid-income workers more than the wealthy, given that a minimum-wage worker will feel the impact of a $479 ticket more than a millionaire.

Interestingly, it's easier for someone with a DUI to get back behind the wheel than someone with an unpaid ticket for a broken taillight. People with DUIs can apply for a restricted license, which allows them to drive to and from work, Desautels noted.

"But if you get it suspended for failing to pay a littering ticket," she said, "you're out of luck."