Drivers Could Get A Break On Unpaid Traffic Tickets In California

Original article appeared in LAist.

By Danny Jensen

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No balloons for you (Photo by Chris Yarzab via the LAist Featured Photos pool on Flickr)

If you’ve ever been hit with those obscenely massive fines and fees that come with getting a traffic ticket, a California chief justice has great news for your wallet.

A proposed emergency rule could prevent California courts from requiring drivers to pay traffic tickets before they have a chance to appear in court to contest them.

California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye proposed the emergency rule to the state’s Judicial Council, the policy-making body of the courts, according to the L.A. Times. She’s also asking that the council, “take a broader look at effective public access to California’s courts, including traffic proceedings and the impact of mandatory and discretionary fines, fees and penalties on court users.”

Currently, most county courts in the state will only allow you to appear in court once fines are paid in full after an initial deadline for contesting or payment has passed. What might have been a $100 ticket initially quickly escalates to $500 or higher with additional fines and penalties created to generate funds for the court system and other programs. At that point, the debt is already on it’s way to a state-contracted collections agency, which leads to the suspension of the driver’s license and additional civil penalties.

As things stand, your license can only be reinstated if you pay all of the fees and fines in full, while in the meantime penalties continue to pile up. According to a recent report from the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area and other civil legal aid groups, one in six drivers in California—roughly 4.8 million people—have had their licenses suspended for not paying the mounting fees.

The escalating cost can be rough on anyone, but for someone living paycheck to paycheck who relies upon their car for work, a single ticket can be devastating.

And for the state, the growing debt of uncollected court-ordered fines has reached over $10 billion, cutting off significant revenue for many state programs.

If the emergency relief rule passes, it will come as a welcome addition to similar efforts from state legislators and Gov. Jerry Brown to develop an amnesty program for unpaid court-ordered traffic debt, a practice which Brown accurately describes as placing drivers in “a hellhole of desperation.”

A hellhole of desperation, indeed.