Unpaid Fines

By Maura Dolan and Lee Romney
May 21, 2015

Weighing in on a troubled system, California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye has called for an emergency rule to prevent courts from requiring drivers to pay traffic tickets before they can go to court to contest them.

Cantil-Sakauye this week asked the Judicial Council, the policy-making body of the courts, to write an emergency rule “that makes it clear that Californians do not have to pay for a traffic infraction before being able to appear in court.”

Her directive, issued Monday, comes as legislators and Gov. Jerry Brown tackle the issue of escalating traffic fines, fees and penalties that have led to driver’s license suspensions for 4.8 million Californians.

In bolstering a proposed amnesty program this month for those with unpaid court-ordered traffic debt, Brown said the practice places residents in “a hellhole of desperation.”

He added that the “whole business of those fines ought to be looked at.”

Once an initial deadline to pay or contest a ticket has passed, many California counties will grant a court hearing only if fines are first paid in full. By then the debt has generally been sent to a state-contracted collections agency, which suspends the offender’s driver’s license and layers on an additional civil penalty.

The license can be reinstated only with a full payment, and penalties continue to amass.

A report issued last month by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area and other civil legal aid groups revealed that one in six California drivers have had their licenses suspended for not paying the steadily escalating fees. Without the ability to legally drive, many are unable to work.

A traffic ticket with a base fine of $100 now costs nearly $500 because of additional fees and penalties that the Legislature has adopted to generate funds for the court system and other programs. That jumps to $815 if the driver misses the initial deadline for payment.

The U.S. Department of Justice has condemned similar practices in Ferguson, Mo., citing a disparate impact on low-income and minority people.

Cantil-Sakauye said that although many traffic fines are set by state law, “the law is confusing and may result in inconsistent practices or policies throughout the state.”

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