Courts Ban Pay-First Policy for Traffic Tickets

Original article appeared in San Jose Inside.

In response to mounting criticism that traffic courts unfairly punish poor people, the California Judicial Council adopted an emergency rule Monday that grants people access to trials without first paying a fine.

Reform advocates applauded the policy change but said it doesn’t go far enough, as millions of low-income Californians are denied a chance at a hearing if they miss their initial citation deadline.

Still, the ruling, offers some relief in a system that disproportionately targets the impoverished by demanding enormous fines for minor offenses and makes it difficult to contest them.

Critics have called the status quo a pay-to-play system, where courts deny access to a trial until the defendant pays the full bail amount—that’s the price of the ticket—which can be hundreds of dollars. That means innocent drivers, or those with extenuating circumstances who can’t afford the fees, can’t present their case to a judge.

Monday’s motion by judicial policymakers comes as Sacramento lawmakers gear up to vote on a bill that would lower the cost of late fees, offer payment plans and reinstate driver’s licenses suspended over nonpayment or missed court dates.

Since 2006, some 5 million Californians have lost their licenses for unpaid tickets, which have become increasingly expensive as the state keeps piling on fees. Losing a license, of course, makes it tough to pay those fines, as pointed out in an April report by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights.

“These suspensions make it harder for people to get and keep jobs, harm credit ratings and raise public safety concerns,” said the study titled, Not Just a Ferguson Problem: How Traffic Courts Drive Inequality in California. “Ultimately, they keep people in long cycles of poverty that are difficult if not impossible for many to overcome.”

Read the full ruling here.