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Santa Monica Official Backs Legislation to Restore Revoked Drivers Licenses

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

Pacific Park, Santa Monica Pier

Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore
Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

By Niki Cervantes
Staff Writer

May 4, 2015 -- As both a Santa Monica City Council member and an attorney for the Western Center on Law and Poverty, Sue Himmelrich is familiar with the problem:  A driver, usually one who is already financially struggling, gets a ticket for an infraction, such as driving without a license plate

Unable to pay the initial fee, the driver watches as fines and penalties mushroom.  The driver loses driving privileges and possibly a job as a result.

It’s a vicious cycle, she said – but one which a proposed State Senate bill would address by granting amnesty to drivers whose licenses were suspended for failure to appear in court or failure to pay a fine or bail.

“I think it would be a benefit to all those at risk, all the lower income people,” Himmelrich said of the legislation, which is being sponsored by the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “A lot of them are elderly and living in rent controlled units. They live on social security.”

SB 405, by State Senator Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, went before the Senate Committee on Public Safety last Tuesday and was passed unanimously.

“We are criminalizing the poor and dramatically impacting their lives with punishments that far exceed their crimes by slamming them with excessive fines,” Hertzberg said shortly before the vote. “Then we take away their ability to get to work.”

If passed, he said, the bill would also compliment Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed 18-month Traffic Amnesty program, which seeks to improve court-ordered debt collection to recover at least some of the estimated $10 billion in uncollected, court-ordered debt, Hertzberg said.

Hertzberg’s bill allows the use of an income-based sliding scale for program participants and would not limit the court’s ability to replace taking a license with wage garnishment or community service.

 The Department of Motor Vehicles would be required to notify motorists of the amnesty program in multiple languages.  In addition, it requests a written report from each court or county starting an amnesty program.

The threat of losing a driver’s license has been used for some time as leverage to encourage motorists to pay fines. The revenues are heavily relied upon by the courts, which have faced budget cuts in recent years, officials have said.

SB 405 has broad support from local governments, organizations that are advocates for the poor, some law enforcement and community groups that work extensively with the needy.

Himmelrich said the legislation would have a definite impact on Santa Monica because -- despite its reputation as a seaside enclave for the wealthy – the city has a growing populations of the working poor, the impoverished and the low-income elderly.

The city’s median income may be nearly $75,000, but 11 percent of the population lives below the poverty level and 15 percent is 65 years of age or older, according to the U.S. Census.

Many in the city’s working class population work in lower-paying jobs in tourism, a sector of the local economy that is responsible for 12,908 jobs alone, says the Santa Monica Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“We have a large percentage of the population that isn’t as affluent as it used to be,” Himmelrich said. “I think this (SB 405) would be a benefit  to them,” she said.

According to the DMV, 4.2 million California residents – or about one in six -- had their licenses revoked because of non-payment of fines, Hertzberg said.  All involved initial fines that were far exceeded by various added-on fees, penalties and other mandatory payments.

Hertzberg said a New Jersey study found that when a license was suspended, 42 percent of drivers lost their jobs. Of those, 45 percent were unable to find new jobs and 88 percent of persons with suspended licenses reported a reduction in their income.

“This jeopardizes economic stability in the state and limits the workforce available,” Hertzberg said. “By imposing fees that cannot be paid and effectively creating permanent license suspensions, the system also threatens public safety.

“Those with suspended licenses often drive without insurance,” he said . “If there is an accident, they don’t have coverage.”

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