Next steps on Traffic Court issues affecting returning citizens

This fall, Justice Lab students are continuing to work with their client, Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity (PLSE), on problems identified in our report, Proposed Solutions for Improving the Experience of Returning Citizens with the Philadelphia Traffic Division.  That report showed that traffic fines and license suspensions dating from before an individual’s incarceration can present a major barrier to employability years later.

Students are surveying Philadelphians at expungement clinics and other community events in order to gather more data about the experiences of returning citizens with traffic issues.  The students are also developing a pilot legal services program through which PLSE will offer direct help to returning citizens, with the hope that the program will eventually be implemented around Pennsylvania.

Gabrielle Green L’18, a Justice Lab student, had this to say after attending a community event:  “I think the biggest learning moment today was meeting people where they are.  One of our client’s missions is for the past to not affect an individual’s future in regard to their employment potential, and it is good to hear about some of the barriers, and the hopeful solutions.  It made me understand that although we may be small in number, we can still have a big impact in making change happen.”

Department of Justice cites Sheller Center language access study

A newly released report by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), Language Access in State Courts, cites Barriers to Justice for Non-English Speakers in the Pennsylvania Courts, a Sheller Center study.  In that study, Social Justice Lawyering Clinic students presented the results of their research on Pennsylvania’s Magisterial District Justice courts (the lowest level in the Pennsylvania court system). The research showed that these courts often operated in violation of civil rights laws mandating language services for people whose native language is not English.

DOJ’s report cites some of the problems uncovered by the Center’s study, including “instructing LEP [Limited English Proficient] individuals to wait in the court lobby until another person who speaks their language comes in, or [expecting] the LEP person to come to the courthouse with an English-speaking friend or family member.”  DOJ states that “the challenge of providing meaningful language access in state courts demands that we continue to modernize, innovate, and keep pace with the evolving demographics of our country.”

With the development of a statewide language access plan in Pennsylvania, the hope is that the courts will implement uniform policies and practices that improve access to justice for non-English-speaking individuals.

“Live Stop” fines and fees: over $100 million to the Philadelphia Parking Authority

Katelyn Mays, a 3L, worked on Philadelphia’s troublesome Live Stop policy as a student in the Center’s Social Justice Lawyering Clinic. Last May, the Center issued a report discussing the impact this law has on Philadelphia drivers, particularly undocumented individuals who cannot legally obtain a driver’s license in Pennsylvania.

Live Stop is a Philadelphia policy that instructs the Police Department to tow and impound a driver’s car if they are found to be driving without a valid license or registration. The driver must pay towing and storage fees to the Philadelphia Parking Authority, as well as any unpaid parking tickets, in order to get their car back. As Katelyn points out, “these fees can be financially crippling for Philadelphia families.”

Katelyn and her clinic partner filed a Right to Know Request with the Parking Authority to see just how much the city was collecting through the program. They found that, since 2003, Philadelphia drivers have paid a total of approximately $75 million to the Parking Authority to retrieve their cars. Katelyn notes that many drivers are unable to afford these fees, and that the Authority then auctions off their unclaimed cars. Since 2002, the PPA has sold around 125,000 cars, producing an additional $65 million.

Philly’s problematic “Live Stop” policy

When a Philadelphia motorist is found to be driving without a valid license or registration, the Police Department tows and impounds the car.  The driver must pay — sometimes upwards of $1,000 — to get the car back, in addition to any fines resulting from the violation.

State law does not actually require towing in most of these situations. But the City’s “Live Stop” policy calls for it anyway, mostly ignoring other options. According to Karen Hoffmann and Katelyn Mays, students in the Social Justice Lawyering Clinic who recently wrote a report on Live Stop, “Philadelphia seems to be one of the only cities in the nation with such an aggressive [towing and impoundment] policy.” (Some exceptions were created in response to a 2011 lawsuit filed by Stephen Sheller, who helped to create the Sheller Center for Social Justice.)

Among those harmed by the policy are undocumented immigrants, since – in a double whammy – state law makes them ineligible for drivers’ licenses (a problem discussed in another Sheller Center report). Thus, when an undocumented driver is stopped for even a minor violation, a license violation is also found and the car is towed. As Ms. Hoffmann notes, many of these drivers have valid registrations and insurance: “These are people who are trying to do the right thing, and the law is getting in their way.”

More generally, Live Stop imposes needless financial hardship on people who are struggling to get by.  As the report puts it, “Philadelphia should not have a policy that unnecessarily impoverishes city residents.” According to Ms. Hoffmann, moreover, the City seems unclear about how the policy was created or why it exists. “I learned how obscure city policies can be,” she says, “and how hard it can be to get to the root of where they came from.”

In researching the policy, the team worked closely with the New Sanctuary Movement, many of whose members have been affected by Live Stop. The experience, according to Ms. Hoffman, was “valuable, sometimes frustrating, definitely eye-opening.”  Read the full report here, in English or Spanish.

Removing barriers for people returning from incarceration

Among the barriers faced by Philadelphia citizens returning from incarceration, unresolved traffic fines and driver’s license suspensions loom large.  Unless they’re addressed, these problems can impair the person’s ability to earn a living; and, because the underlying offenses typically date back many years, resolving them can be complicated.

Enter Justice Lab students Aaron Bindman, Zane Johnson, and Dennie Zastrow, who worked with their client, Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity, to develop solutions.  The team interviewed stakeholders in Philadelphia, surveyed returning citizens, and researched and spoke with individuals in other jurisdictions.  Their report, “Proposed solutions for Improving the Experience of Returning Citizens with the Philadelphia Traffic Division,” contains a number of common-sense proposals, including converting outstanding fines to time served or to community service; simplifying Traffic Division materials, and making sure that they include understandable information about the availability of payment plans for traffic fines; educating returning citizens on how to navigate the Traffic Division process; and more.

Aaron reflected on his work on the project: “It was not until we started talking to returning citizens that we began to understand the magnitude of these problems and the impact our work could have. Every potential employer we encountered required a non-suspended driver’s license, no matter the job. Impossible-to-pay traffic fines and resulting license suspensions were another unnecessary barrier to those individuals returning to society. Our Justice Lab project offers several solutions that could help returning citizens avoid being punished over and over again.”

Helping unrepresented litigants navigate the courts

 

There was a time when most people who went to court over landlord-tenant problems, consumer disputes, child custody, and other such matters were accompanied by lawyers.  But that time is long gone; now, because of the shortage of even moderately-priced legal services, most Americans must represent themselves in these “routine” — but vitally important — matters.

But representing oneself is no picnic for a layperson, given the almost impenetrable complexity of legal rules and procedures. Students from the Sheller Center’s Social Justice Lawyering Clinic waded into this problem this year, working with the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas to find ways of making justice more accessible to pro se litigants.

Law student Madeline Rathey was on the team, focusing on the area of appeals from eviction orders.  “It was eye-opening, and frustrating, to try to figure out how to navigate the system, and then to simplify it for pro se folks,” she says.

Despite the frustrations, Madeline feels positively about documents that she and her colleagues drafted – including a much simplified form for people seeking waivers of court fees, and clearer information on how to get an eviction stayed pending appeal.  The team also recommended some changes to court procedure, such as elimination of the requirement that litigants submit a formal memorandum with every motion (a near-impossibility for pro se folks).  And, Madeline notes, an even bigger step forward would be the creation of a Help Desk at the court’s filing office – since most people sooner or later need some hands-on help, not just forms and instructions.

Madeline’s work on these problems won’t end here.  She graduated this spring, and her next stop is a position with Mid-Penn Legal Services in Reading, representing low-income clients in landlord/tenant cases.

Helping unrepresented litigants navigate the courts

 

There was a time when most people who went to court over landlord-tenant problems, consumer disputes, child custody, and other such matters were accompanied by lawyers.  But that time is long gone; now, because of the shortage of even moderately-priced legal services, most Americans must represent themselves in these “routine” — but vitally important — matters.

But representing oneself is no picnic for a layperson, given the almost impenetrable complexity of legal rules and procedures. Students from the Sheller Center’s Social Justice Lawyering Clinic waded into this problem this year, working with the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas to find ways of making justice more accessible to pro se litigants.

Law student Madeline Rathey was on the team, focusing on the area of appeals from eviction orders.  “It was eye-opening, and frustrating, to try to figure out how to navigate the system, and then to simplify it for pro se folks,” she says.

Despite the frustrations, Madeline feels positively about documents that she and her colleagues drafted – including a much simplified form for people seeking waivers of court fees, and clearer information on how to get an eviction stayed pending appeal.  The team also recommended some changes to court procedure, such as elimination of the requirement that litigants submit a formal memorandum with every motion (a near-impossibility for pro se folks).  And, Madeline notes, an even bigger step forward would be the creation of a Help Desk at the court’s filing office – since most people sooner or later need some hands-on help, not just forms and instructions.

Madeline’s work on these problems won’t end here.  She graduated this spring, and her next stop is a position with Mid-Penn Legal Services in Reading, representing low-income clients in landlord/tenant cases.

A legal incubator for Philadelphia?

Legal “incubators” help young lawyers gain the practical skills they need in order to set up moderately-priced law practices in local communities.  Thus, incubators serve a dual purpose:  they expand career options for law graduates, while also supporting the creation of affordable services for people of low and moderate incomes (who, studies show, are increasingly unable to access legal help).

The first incubator opened in 2007 at CUNY Law School.  Now, there are over fifty — in Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, New Jersey, Maryland, Ohio, as well as dozens of other locations around the country.  In an issue brief, “A Legal Incubator for Philadelphia?,” Temple law student Stephen Fox examines the incubator movement, and argues that the time has come to consider establishing an incubator here.