SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – At an emergency meeting Monday called by California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, the Judicial Council voted unanimously to allow Californians to fight their traffic tickets in court without having to pay bail first.
“I wanted to make certain that Californians would not have to pay for a traffic infraction before appearing in their court,” Cantil-Sakauye said. “I’m proud of the rule that’s been developed. This is an important first step to address an urgent access to justice issue.”
She cited a recent report by the San Francisco-based Lawyer’s Committee for Civil Rights called “Not Just a Ferguson Problem – How Traffic Courts Drive Inequality in California,” that noted over four million Californians have lost their driver’s licenses because they cannot afford to pay increasingly high traffic fines. This is also a fiscal problem for the trial courts, which are unable to collect these delinquent traffic debts.
The chief justice said one issue the council could take care of immediately is the “increasing barriers” for California drivers who want to challenge traffic tickets in court.
She added, “Of course, many of the concerns highlighted in the lawyer’s committee report will require solutions from all three branches of government. And we are working to that end, members of the legislature and governor’s administration.”
Under the new rule, traffic defendants can appear for arraignment and trial in traffic cases without depositing bail. Exceptions to the rule include cases where a defendant does not sign a written promise to appear as required by the court, if the court finds that the defendant is unlikely to appear without paying bail, or if the defendant chooses to pay a bail deposit and plead not guilty in lieu of appearing in person.
While the rule – passed 18-0 – will take effect immediately, courts have until Sept. 15 to give public notice of the option.
Judge Mark Borrell of Ventura County, who heads the council’s traffic-advisory committee, said some judges on the committee were concerned that the rule may be burdensome on overworked courts but called the issue “too important to forgo.”
He added, “This discussion highlights the difficult situation of our strained traffic courts and the tension between having the type of traffic-justice system Californians deserve and that which our budget allows.”
Judge Marsha Slough, who chairs the council’s committee of trial court presiding judges, said she had read public comments that said more people will ask for trials to challenge their traffic citations if the rule is approved.
“I think if that is true, then really it may suggest that the purpose of this recommendation for the rule has indeed been accomplished,” Slough said, “by improving access to justice for traffic-infraction defendants who appear as promised and desire their day in court.”
California Supreme Court Justice Ming Chin said while the council is looking at ways to make the traffic infraction process more fair and efficient, it should consider video appearances for defendants and law enforcement.
He pointed to a comment from Riverside County Superior Court Presiding Judge Harold Hopp, who wrote that judges on his bench were worried that defendants would request a trial hoping that law enforcement officers would not attend and that the case would be dismissed – resulting in far more trial requests and wasted time and increased expense for officers.
“I don’t want to gum up the works here, but it seems to me if we are concerned about the efficient use of law enforcement, we ought to start thinking about a video appearance by law enforcement in these trials and a video appearance by the defendants,” Chin said. “All of these citizens, I’m sure, do not want to be taking time off work to come in and have traffic trials. Why don’t we start thinking about having them make remote appearances rather than making all of these trips to the courthouse?”
He added, “I realize that has absolutely nothing to do with the current rule before us, but it seems to me we ought to start thinking about the future and how to handle these very emotionally drawn trials for our citizens and try to reduce the amount of time we are requiring them to spend in our courtrooms.”
Cantil-Sakauye said that idea and others will be taken up in the future, but “this is the first start.”