by Eliza Schafler
Eliza Schafler is an MHAS Equal Justice Works Fellow sponsored by Greenberg Traurig, LLP.
Most people don’t consider parking tickets and minor moving violations to be serious legal issues. Pay it, and it’s unpleasant, but then it’s over. But for many low-income people in Los Angeles, dealing with a ticket is a labyrinthine and dangerous process, with consequences that ripple into many aspects of life.
Let’s take the example of a low-income immigrant mother who runs a stop sign on the way to work. If she gets a ticket, there is little guidance available to her on next steps. The physical tickets themselves are difficult to read even for native English speakers.
If she is unable to pay the ticket, things get worse. Extensions on payment are not permanent, and payment plans are hard to maintain. She may have to take hours off from work or child care to go to court and wait in long lines. Taking off from work means less pay and even the risk of job loss. She likely cannot afford a lawyer to advise her on how to proceed. All this is extremely stressful and can take a psychological toll.
If she does nothing, she will be charged with failure to pay or failure to appear in court. She may soon have warrant out for her arrest. Her license will be placed on hold and then suspended, leaving her vulnerable to another ticket if she keeps driving. Meanwhile, the fines will keep piling up.
What if this mother seeks to adjust her immigration status? An open criminal case would stand in the way. What if she is pulled over, the police see the warrant, and she is arrested? She could end up in deportation proceedings. A misdemeanor on her record could also affect future employment prospects.
For all these reasons, providers of legal services are focusing more and more on clearing tickets and warrants for low-income people. It doesn’t sound like glamorous advocacy, but this type of intervention can make an enormous difference.