Original article appeared in San Jose Inside.
By Jennifer Wadsworth
Under an amnesty program that starts Oct. 1, California drivers struggling to pay off mounting traffic fines will have a chance to settle for a fraction of what they owe.
Gov. Jerry Brown called for the grace period amid growing concerns that traffic courts—which he called “a hellhole of desperation”—trap people in poverty with steep fines for even minor infractions.
Brown’s plan will allow drivers with lesser infractions to pay as little as 20 percent of what they owe and have their driver’s license reinstated. Administrative fees will drop from $300 to $50.
Santa Clara County Superior Court will send out notices about the program next month, according to spokesman Joe Macaluso.
Since 2006, more than 4.8 million people have had their driver’s licenses suspended because they can’t afford to pay court-ordered penalties. Legal aid groups have called this a civil rights issue, noting that it affects predominantly poor and minority residents.
State analysts expect the 18-month amnesty to rake in $150 million in fees that might otherwise have gone uncollected. Unpaid traffic penalties have burgeoned to more than $10 billion.
Earlier this summer, the California Judicial Council, the policymaking body for the state’s courts, issued an emergency ruling to relieve some of that burden. Facing criticism that traffic courts have become a pay-to-play system, the council in June dropped its requirement that people pay fines before they can challenge them.
A pending state bill proposes additional reforms. SB 405 by state Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys) would base penalties on ability to pay and restore licenses to people with non-safety violations.
The #BlackLivesMatter protests is credited with bringing national attention to not only police use of force against men of color but also inequities in traffic court. A U.S. Department of Justice report found that in Ferguson, Missouri—where a white cop shot and killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown—court fees disproportionately target low-income and African American residents.
A California group called the Lawyers’ Committee on Civil Rights issued its own study, which came to a similar conclusion. It showed that California courts have increasingly relied on fees to raise revenues after years of austerity depleted government coffers—poor and minority drivers bear the brunt of those penalties.
Relatively small infractions now cost hundreds of dollars. And if they’re not paid on time, courts tack on penalties that cost hundreds more and result in license suspension.
Losing a license, of course, makes it harder to get to work to earn money to pay down fines. Getting caught driving on a suspended license could land a person in jail.
This upcoming amnesty isn’t the first time the state has granted relief from traffic fees. A six-month program in 2012 helped resolve 42,000 cases and collect $15 million.