L.A. Court Accused of Unfairness to Poor

LOS ANGELES (CN) — Four years ago, as Gloria Mata Alvarado's husband drove her to her doctor she felt a pain in her stomach. She unbuckled her seatbelt and adjusted the strap for some relief — a small move that would turn out to have life-altering consequences.
     A police officer who saw her take off the belt stopped the car but had little interest when she told him she had a medical condition.
     "That's what everyone says," the officer said.
     The officer cited her for the infraction, forcing her to navigate the court system with limited English. She says a court interpreter told her that if she pleaded guilty the matter would be resolved.
     She was fined more than $700, nearly half her $1,500 monthly household income.
     A judge reduced the fine to $600 but it was still more than she could afford, Mata Alvarado says.
     When she went to renew her license at the DMV this year she discovered her license had been suspended for failure to pay the fine.
     Mata Alvarado and Toneshawa Jones sued the Superior Court on Tuesday, claiming that its policy of suspending driver's licenses violates due process of state and federal law.
     The policy disproportionately affects people in black and Latino communities in South Los Angeles, Compton, Long Beach, Lancaster and Palmdale, the two women say in the Superior Court complaint.
     "Each year, tens of thousands of people in Los Angeles County are affected by this practice, losing their right to drive solely because of their poverty," the complaint states. "Moreover, many of these suspensions are for behavior entirely unrelated to driving, such as littering, walking against a red light, or failing to pay bus fare."
     Mata Alvarado and Jones say they were deprived of an opportunity to fight the suspensions and that court officials did not ask them if they able to pay the fines before referring their cases to the DMV.
     Superior Court spokeswoman Mary Hearn said the court could not comment on pending litigation.
     The plaintiffs' attorney Clare Pastore said advocates for the women urged court officials to sit down and discuss the issue but they refused.
     "We are funding our court services on the backs of some of the lowest-income Californians by piling on fine after fine, fee after fee, and penalty after penalty, when people can't pay these traffic tickets," Pastore said in a telephone interview.
     Pastore said it was not uncommon for drivers to receive an initial fine of $200 or more.
     "There's no reason that people should have ruinous fines and fees for relatively innocuous infractions of the vehicle code," the USC Gould School of Law attorney said.
     According to the lawsuit, the loss of a driver's license pushes families deeper into poverty and hardship, leading to unemployment and making it difficult for them to receive medical care.
     After eye surgery, Mata Alvarado's husband was unable to drive for five weeks, and she couldn't take him to follow-up appointments because she had lost her license.
     While the lawsuit is concerned with court practices, it reflects nationwide concerns about community policing. The fatal police shooting of Philando Castile in Minnesota and the death of Sandra Bland in Texas both happened after traffic stops, the complaint notes.
     Pastore cited a Department of Justice report blasting the city court in Ferguson, Mo., after the fatal shooting of teenager Michael Brown, which found that the city used expensive fines for minor traffic infractions to fund basic services.
     "What was once a $30 or $40 or $50 ticket becomes a $200 or $250 or $400 ticket. And then if the person can't pay immediately there's a $30 fee or $50 fee to get a payment plan. And if they miss a payment, there's a $300 penalty. So these things quickly balloon out of control," Pastore said.
     "It's really a ridiculous piece of public policy."
     The women's co-counsel with the Western Center on Law and Poverty said in a statement that it sent a demand to the DMV asking it to stop the practice and life the suspensions of people whose due process rights were violated.
     Mata Alvarado and Jones say that though the court is permitted to refer so-called "willful" non-payers to the DMV for license suspension, it "makes no inquiry whatsoever into an individual's ability to pay."
     They seek an injunction enjoining the court from making the referrals without making such a determination.
     A New Way of Life Re-Entry Project, Rapkin & Associates, Schonbrun Seplow Harris & Hoffman also represent the plaintiffs.