Avalos to examine impact of driver’s license suspensions for unpaid fines

San Francisco is exploring ways to prevent the criminal justice system from suspending the driver’s licenses of residents who fail to appear in court or pay fines.

Working with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, Supervisor John Avalos requested Tuesday that city departments provide data related to the suspension of driver’s licenses. A hearing on the information is expected in May.

“When a driver’s license is suspended a person has to pay a lot of money to get that driver’s license back and if you are low income or don’t have a job that presents a real barrier in making positive changes in one’s life or finding opportunity where it doesn’t exist,” Avalos said. Avalos referenced a recent report in Ferguson, Mo., that there were 16,000 outstanding warrants for people in a city with 21,000 residents and said most were for not paying fines and court fees.

“It’s just one of the ways the justice system is set up that keeps people down,” Avalos said.

Meredith Desautels, a racial-justice staff attorney with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, said her organization intends to release a report next week addressing the issue in California.

A state law change is required to address the overall issue of suspended licenses for failure to appear or pay fines, but Desautels said there are “creative solutions” that could alleviate the issue locally in the meantime. Sen. Robert M. Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, introduced a placeholder bill, Senate Bill 405, to address the issue. But past statewide efforts have failed.

Desautels said part of the challenge of having a suspended license is people can lose jobs or not get jobs that list a driver’s license as a requirement, like delivery drivers or taxi drivers.

“Based on DMV data, we estimate that over 4 million licenses are suspended across California, creating a major barrier to employment and ensuring that those who cannot pay their debts will never be able to,” Desautels said. “We consider this pattern to raise major civil-rights concerns, both in San Francisco and statewide, and we commend Supervisor Avalos for pursuing this issue.”

Avalos compared the effort to what is known as “ban the box,” a reference to the box where employers on job applications as if an applicant has ever been convicted of a felony.

In February 2014, the board unanimously passed legislation banning the box. The law prohibits a housing provider or a business with 20 or more employees from making an upfront inquiry about the criminal history of an applicant. An inquiry into such crimes is still permitted after the first interview or after a conditional offer of employment.

jsabatini@sfexaminer.comBay Area NewsJohn AvalosLawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay AreaMeredith Desautels

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