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.

Billing parents for their children’s incarceration?!

When Philadelphia children are incarcerated, the City bills their parents for the costs of confining them. And if parents don’t pay, the City garnishes wages, withdraws funds from bank accounts, or garnishes tax refunds.

Justice Lab students Sela Cowger, Kelsey Grimes and Wesley Stevenson worked this spring with their client, the Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project, to seek a moratorium on this practice. The team’s research included interviews with attorneys who represent children, the City attorney who handles collections against parents, and parents who had been sued.  The students also met with members of Mayor Kenney’s administration.  While the problem is not yet fixed, there’s reason to be optimistic that it will be soon.

Ms. Stevenson commented: “What struck me most was that every single person we talked to about our project was outraged that the City would charge parents to incarcerate their own children.  From the social worker, to our friends outside of law school, to acquaintances I know in my neighborhood, everyone agreed: it’s just not right. That consensus provided me with clarity and a sense that my team’s work mattered and could have real impact, both in changing everyday lives but also changing attitudes. And it inspired us to extend the length of our project; some of our team will be returning to this fight in the fall semester in the hope that the City will end this harmful policy before the end of the year.”


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.”