WOODLAND DAILY DEMOCRAT EDITORIAL: One burden lifted on state’s poor drivers

October 9, 2015

It’s a dirty secret on the part of law enforcement and the state itself. It’s a means of holding back certain segments of the population — do we dare say “immigrants” — by relegating them to effectively what was once called “Debtor’s Prison.”

The “secret” is a series of punitive fines and late fees charged by California’s traffic system. More than 4 million Californians have lost their driving privileges because they don’t have the money to ticket, according to a report from the Western Center on Law and Poverty. What’s worse, if the tickets remain unpaid, then the fines mount. There’s simply no way out and it hits the poorest segments of our state harder than anyone else.

The secret is that many of those people are already trapped in a cycle of debt and poverty, which benefits neither the state nor anyone else. But no one ever goes after them. Those who someone manage to get the money and pay up get their records cleared. Those who don’t aren’t bothered, unless they violate some other law and then police will be all over them. Worse, law enforcement will go after those owing money to the state if they’re found to be wanted on other charges of wrong-doing.

Everyone gets it. Even those who administer Yolo county government.

“Every day I see Yolo County residents struggle to overcome barriers like lack of transportation and the often related barrier of unemployment,” said Yolo County Public Defender Tracie Olson. “It’s not that as drivers they pose a public safety risk, it’s just that they can’t afford to pay off their court ordered debt.

But now there’s hope. As of Oct. 1, a statewide traffic amnesty started which can assist motorists in Yolo County who owe money.

The program pushed by Gov. Jerry Brown and adopted as part of his annual budget runs through March 31, 2017. Ahead of the program, the governor also signed a bill by state Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Los Angeles, that allows people to schedule a court appearance even if they haven’t paid fines and traffic penalties.

Under the amnesty plan, drivers with lesser infractions would pay either 50 percent or 80 percent of what they owe, depending on income. Certain drivers would also be able to apply for installment payments for outstanding tickets. Drunken-driving and reckless-driving violations are not eligible. Civil assessment fees would be waived for some tickets. Residents who have had their licenses revoked would be able to apply to have them reinstated.

That’s a good deal. Everyone gets at least 50 percent off. And the poorest of Californians will get 80 percent off. And those drivers who lost their licenses because they couldn’t pay will be able to get their driving privileges reinstated.

That means no more driving with an expired license — something we know many of Yolo County’s poor are doing. They’re taking a risk of getting picked up by police, and they know it. Police, of course, can easily do a database search of those with expired licenses and then legally arrest those who might suspects in other crimes.

The bad part of this deal is that anyone who takes part in the program still might have to pay a $50 court “amnesty fee.” And the Department of Motor Vehicles will levy another $55 fee on anyone who wants his or her license reinstated. But that’s better than nothing.

Again, according to the Western Center report, California has more than $10 billion in uncollected court-ordered debt and uses the heavy fines as a source of revenue. The state issues stiff fines for traffic infractions and tacks on ridiculous fees and assessments that can quadruple the original fine.

Remember these crimes are for moving violations, such as speeding, running red lights and failing to stop at stop signs. Other fines are for such things as loitering, trespassing and littering.

We recommend that those who have outstanding fines take advantage of the amnesty offer and get their records cleaned up and driving privileges restored as soon as possible.

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