The American Civil Liberties Union just sued the Solano County, California courts over the way it suspends driver's licenses because of unpaid tickets and fines without first determining whether the defendants were able to pay or "willfully" refused to pay.
Holy Wisconsin -- Milwaukee Municipal Court does that, too. It's a wonder that the courts here are so slow to fix practices they know can get them in trouble -- and why the City of Milwaukee and the state court system allow these bad practices to continue.
Here's some pieces of the California filing -- just substitute the words "Milwaukee" or "Milwaukee Municipal Court" where appropriate and you'll get the picture.
Plaintiffs bring this lawsuit to protect a fundamental principle of our justice system-that a person should not be punished simply for being poor. In California, many thousands of people have had and continue to have their driver's license suspended because they are unable to pay fines and fees related to minor traffic citations and other infractions.
Milwaukee Municipal Court suspends driver's licenses for up to a year for unpaid tickets in cases that have absolutely nothing to do with traffic violations. In Wisconsin last year, almost 200,000 driver's license suspensions -- more than half of all the suspensions statewide -- were attributable to failing to pay forfeitures, according to the State Department of Motor Vehicles. Another thousand licenses were suspended because of truancy -- some of those kids may not have even had their licenses yet.
Back to the California / Milwaukee case.
As both the federal and state supreme courts have recognized, for many, having a driver license is not a luxury, but essential in the pursuit of a livelihood. Many low wage jobs require a license. Lack of adequate public transportation means that being able to legally drive can be necessary in order to work, or to take children to school or to medical appointments, or to care for ill or disabled family members. While those who can afford to pay, do, for those who cannot, the suspension of their license for nonpayment of fines and fees constitutes nothing less than a harsh sanction solely for being poor-a punishment that paradoxically further impairs a person's ability to meet her financial obligations to the courts....
Because the Superior Court fails to provide adequate notice that individuals are entitled to an ability to pay determination with respect to their traffic fines and fees, many people who are indigent and cannot pay the staggering cost of a typical traffic ticket in California believe that it is futile to appear or otherwise contact the court. Accordingly, Defendants' practices also violate the due process rights of indigent traffic defendants whose licenses are suspended for failure to appear because they do not have adequate notice that they are entitled to relief based on their financial circumstances.
In addition, Defendant Superior Court's practices constitute a system that impermissibly classifies and punishes similarly situated persons on the basis of wealth. Those who can pay traffic tickets do, and thus avoid the extreme sanction of driver's license suspension. In contrast, those who cannot afford to pay have their licenses suspended, jeopardizing their livelihood, freedom, and ability to care for their loved ones, solely because of their indigency. Such a result violates the guarantee of equal protection under both our state and federal constitutions.
Not only do Defendant Superior Court's practices violate the law, but they also are misguided as a matter of public policy. Indeed, in its recently issued guidance, the U.S. Department of Justice urged state and local courts to "avoid suspending driver's licenses as a debt collection tool" because of the significant harm caused by license suspensions to individuals and families. As noted by the Department of Justice, "research has consistently found that having a valid driver's license can be crucial to individuals' ability to maintain a job, pursue educational opportunities, and care for families."
Hey -- you listening, Milwaukee?
Gretchen Schuldt is executive director of the Wisconsin Justice Initiative.
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