If you get caught speeding in many parts of Europe, you will pay a fine proportionate to your income. In the United States, the fine for a traffic or other infraction is the same for everyone, regardless of income. Infraction tickets in California typically run to the hundreds of dollars—an amount that is out of reach for a person who is homeless, living on a fixed disability income, or working a minimum wage job. If a person misses her traffic court date due to continued homelessness, lack of transportation, or because she cannot take time off from her job, she will be cited for misdemeanor failure to appear, which adds hundreds of dollars to the fine, suspends her license and puts her at risk of arrest. A client can end up owing over $1,000 on a single infraction—and be unable to pay it off because she can no longer get to work without a driver’s license.

Recognizing the overwhelming burden that citations place on low-income individuals, the California legislature enacted a temporary traffic Amnesty Program that went into effect in October 2015. The Amnesty Program, which concluded on April 4, 2017, enabled Californians to dramatically decrease their traffic debt, get their licenses back, and/or avoid jail time. In its first 16 months, the Amnesty Program reduced traffic debt up to 80% for 205,686 people (Source: Courts.ca.gov). In this same period, the program enabled 192,452 people to get their driver’s licenses back.


In this same period, the program enabled 192,452 people to get their driver’s licenses back.


During the course of the Amnesty Program, MHAS had the opportunity to help dozens of veterans and people who have experienced homelessness take advantage of debt reduction and license reinstatement. In March 2017, the last month of the program, MHAS held two Amnesty Clinics, one at Mental Health America’s Operation Healthy Homecoming and one at Mental Health America’s The Village.

Photo Credit: dmv.ca.gov

Our Amnesty Program clinics assisted clients with the filing process, provided information on how the program worked and offered self-advocacy strategies for successfully completing the process. Valerie,* who has a history of mental illness and homelessness, came to our Village clinic because her license was suspended. A courthouse employee had informed her that the tickets she had made her ineligible for license reinstatement under the Amnesty Program. We explained to Valerie that she would, in fact, be eligible to get her license back once she make an initial total payment of $25 to enter the program. Armed with this knowledge, Valerie returned to the courthouse and informed the clerk she qualified for driver’s license reinstatement under the Amnesty Program. When the clerk told her that she had to pay $25 per ticket, Valerie insisted on speaking to a supervisor, as we had instructed her. The supervisor confirmed that Valerie was correct and advised the clerk to enroll Valerie for a total payment of $25. Soon after, Valerie reported to MHAS that she had succeeded in reinstating her driver’s license. It’s always exciting to get a victory for a client through my legal advocacy, but it is equally rewarding to foster a client’s self-esteem and sense of control over her life by offering self-advocacy support and guidance that respects her autonomy and ability to problem solve.


 It’s always exciting to get a victory for a client through my legal advocacy, but it is equally rewarding to foster a client’s self-esteem and sense of control over her life…


While the temporary Amnesty Program is now over, there are signs that California is making a permanent shift away from penalizing its poor citizens with driver’s license suspensions and jail time. New California Rules of Court, which went into effect on January 1, 2017, require traffic courts to make ability-to-pay determinations upon request during sentencing or before the debt is paid off. Currently, the California legislature is also contemplating more fulsome relief for its low-income citizens, in the form of Senate Bill 185 (Hertzberg). SB 185 would prevent courts from suspending driver’s licenses due to traffic court debt and require courts to reinstate previously suspended licenses for anyone who enters into a payment plan. The bill would also require that courts assess an individual’s ability to pay before levying fines, provide affordable payment plans, and reduce or eliminate court debts for low-income individuals. Meanwhile, at least one city in California—San Francisco—is contemplating a move to income-based traffic fines, like in northern and western Europe (Source: The California Sunday Magazine). Perhaps Los Angeles will be next.

*not client’s real name