California judiciary makes historic traffic ticket ruling

Original article appeared in The Alpenhorn News

By S. E. Williams

San Bernardino Presiding Judge Marsha G. Slough, a member of the California Judicial Council, identified the new rule as one step that could be taken quickly for the good and affirmed that other steps will follow.

On Monday, June 8 California Judicial Council voted unanimously to bar courts from charging drivers bail before they can challenge traffic tickets. The new rule takes effect immediately and gives citizens the right to fight traffic tickets without paying the fine first.

The ruling requires courts to change their notices to the public to say that no one will be required to pay upfront as a condition of a hearing on a ticket.

In late May, California Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye, called on the policy making body of the state’s Judicial Council to issue an emergency rule. The purpose of the rule was to make it clear Californians do not have to pay for a traffic infraction before being able to appear in court.

Cantil-Sakauye requested this rule in the wake of a report by Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights (LCCR) of the San Francisco Bay Area. Her action acknowledged the report’s findings that once an initial deadline to pay or contest a ticket had passed many counties in the state refused a court hearing unless the fines were first paid in full.

Of course, by then, in most instances, the debt had usually already been sent to a state-contracted collection agency which had suspended the offender’s driver’s license and layered on an additional civil penalty making it even more difficult for the offender to resolve and resulted in an even more costly dilemma. The offender’s plight was usually further exacerbated by the fact the license could only be reinstated when the fine was paid in full and in the meantime, penalties continued to accrue.

The LCCR report concluded low-income Californians are being disproportionately impacted by state laws and procedures related to driver’s license suspensions.

The report confirmed, due to increased fines, fees, and reduced access to courts nearly five million Californians have suspended driver’s licenses. The report determined such suspensions make it harder for people to get and keep jobs; harms credit ratings; and, has raised public safety concerns. Ultimately, according to the report, “they keep people in long cycles of poverty that are difficult, if not impossible, for many to overcome”.

Some Californians may have passively noted the shocking revelations regarding the city of Ferguson’s traffic violation practices, exposed by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), made public in early March. The DOJ investigation was in response to complaints by African Americans citizens in Ferguson, Missouri, of being unfairly targeted for minor traffic and other violations. DOJ found the courts and law enforcement agencies in Ferguson, Missouri systematically and purposefully took money from the pockets of poor people—disproportionately African Americans, to put into court and city coffers. The LCCR report makes it abundantly clear that such disturbing practices extend beyond Ferguson, Missouri. Although many have asserted the context in California is different, LCCR identified strikingly similar practices in the golden state.

The LCCR report noted in California, just as in Missouri, policies and practices that have the propensity to turn citation offenses into poverty sentences as low income individuals experience the greatest impact. This happened because the revenue incentives of fine collections lead to increased citation enforcement. Also, as part of the inherently flawed process, add-on fees for minor offenses double or quadruple the original fine; and, people who fail to pay because they do not have the money lose their driver’s licenses.

In addition, once an initial deadline was missed, courts routinely denied people the right to a hearing unless they could afford the total amount owed up front. As a result, payment in full became the sole means for having a license reinstated. It was not uncommon, according to the LCCR report, to see what used to be a $100 violation now costs nearly $500, with the very likely potential to jump to over $800 if a person missed the initial deadline to pay.

State legislators are considering a proposal by California Governor Jerry Brown to offer amnesty for certain traffic fines.

The proposed amnesty will ease the burden of state residents who cannot afford to pay mounting traffic fines and penalties. Such failures to pay have resulted in the suspension of more than 4.5 million driver’s licenses since 2006.

Under the amnesty program proposed by the governor and under consideration legislators, drivers whose infractions are lesser, i.e., broken tail lights, rolling stops, etc. may see fines cut in half and administrative fees could also be slashed from a high of $300 to $50.

It is unclear whether Brown’s push for amnesty on this issue was in response to the LCCR report or is the result of federal probing; however, there is growing concern among many that the California justice system is profiting off minorities and low-income residents. A spokesman for the governor did identify the concern to a reporter with the StarTribune as a civil rights issue that has prompted discussions between the Brown administration and the U.S. Department of Justice.

Driving a motor vehicle in California without a valid driver’s license can be charged as either a misdemeanor or an infraction. A misdemeanor charge may result in imprisonment in the county jail for a period not exceeding six months or by a fine of up to $1,000 or both.

The Alpenhorn News will continue to follow this story.