Original article can be found in the Daily Journal.
By Bob Hertzberg
Andrew, a 22-year-old single father, was working as a mechanic and making regular installment payments to the court on a couple of traffic tickets.
A few months into the payments, his 2-year-old son was diagnosed with leukemia. As his son’s sole caretaker, Andrew had to leave his job to care for his son. His sudden loss of income meant that he could not meet the terms of his payment plan, and the court suspended his driver’s license. His fines were handed off to a collections agency, with an extra $300 “civil assessment” tacked on for his “failure to pay” as planned.
The court refused to hear his case and told Andrew he could not get a license until the full amount of fines and fees was paid, even if he resumed making installment payments.
Andrew’s case is not an isolated example. In March of this year, a group of legal service organizations released a report titled “Not Just a Ferguson Problem, How Traffic Courts Drive Inequality in California.” The report was a shocking expose of what was occurring all over the state. It reported that California courts had suspended the driver’s licenses of more than 4 million Californians for either not making payments on traffic fines or not appearing in court.
The problem starts with the high cost of traffic tickets. A $100 ticket actually costs $493 after all the fees, add-ons and assessments are included. If the person then fails to appear in court or doesn’t make payments on the ticket, another $300 is added to the amount. It is easy to see that for someone like Andrew, this could quickly escalate out of control.
California judges have the authority to do a lot to help people in this situation. However, as the report noted, millions of Californians were never able to see a judge because they were required to pay the full amount they owed in advance. Low-income Californians, particularly people of color, often cannot come up with the full amount. Nor can they ask a judge to reduce the fine, show they had good cause for not paying or volunteer for community service.
In short, California has a “pay-to-play” traffic court system where people with money get one standard of justice and people like Andrew get no justice.
The report also cited a New Jersey study showing that when residents of that state got their licenses suspended, more than 42 percent of them lost their jobs, and 88 percent suffered a loss of income. While some believe that suspending a license encourages people to pay their debts, it might actually make them less able to pay.
In response, a bipartisan group of California lawmakers introduced legislation to undo this mess. To his credit, Gov. Jerry Brown proposed a sweeping amnesty program to reduce these debts and give people back their licenses, so they can get their life back.
This was approved by the California Legislature as part of the budget and will go into effect Oct. 1, allowing people to apply for relief. Those who received a ticket before Jan. 1, 2013, will get a 50 percent reduction in their debt and can have all civil assessments waived. Low-income Californians will get an 80 percent reduction in their debt. Once they sign up for a payment plan, they will get their driver’s licenses back.
Anyone making payments on their traffic fines, no matter when they got the ticket, can get their license back immediately. The only exceptions are for serious driving infractions like drunken driving, if victim restitution is owed, or for an outstanding felony charge. It will be a simple process, and people won’t have to appear in front of a judge.
In addition to this, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye pushed through a new rule of court that makes it easier for people to get in front of a judge without having to make all the payments in advance. Senate Bill 405, passed by both houses of the Legislature and now on the governor’s desk, would further rein in the pay-to- play system by eliminating the requirement that all fines and penalties be paid before the driver can get a court hearing. It also gives the chief justice the ability to deal with drivers who have tickets in more than one county. All of these are important steps to ensure true access to justice.
Next year, the Legislature needs to take further steps. It must reduce the amount of the fines so that they stop being a burden for working families and restore funding to the courts so that judges aren’t put in the compromised position of having to be revenue collectors for their own courts.
Lastly, lawmakers need to seriously consider rolling back the use of driver’s license suspensions for routine traffic violations or for late payment of fines. There is mounting evidence that this punishment is not working, as evidenced by the $10 billion in uncollected traffic fines owed right now.
The good news is that when Sacramento learned about the problem, all three branches of government responded quickly. There is more work to do, but this year was a promising beginning.
The bad news is the solutions to this problem will require even more difficult decisions.
The one thing the state cannot afford is to have a failure of political will and political vision to change a status quo that is trapping millions of California families in a pile of debt.
They deserve better.
Bob Hertzberg is chair of the California Senate Committee on Governance and Finance and represents the 18th District in the San Fernando Valley. He authored SB 405.