VENTURA COUNTY STAR: Traffic fines big problem

By Timm Herdt

October 11, 2015

With the onset of the Great Recession in 2008, the attorneys at legal aid clinics that serve low-income Californians began discovering that something very troubling was happening with traffic tickets.

More than rent disputes, domestic violence issues or other legal matters, people were coming through their doors asking for help in dealing with traffic tickets they couldn’t afford to pay.

“It has become the fastest-rising problem of legal aid walk-in clientele,” said Mike Herald, an advocate with the Western Center on Law & Poverty. “It’s just kind of mushroomed on us.”

The clients’ problems go beyond unpaid bills, dealing with debt-collectors and wage garnishments. There is also a ramification that fundamentally limits their ability to carry on with their lives: When they don’t or can’t afford to pay a traffic ticket, they lose their driver’s license.

It wasn’t until late last year that anyone calculated the predictable toll of levying such expensive fines on low-income motorists.

Herald went to the DMV headquarters in Sacramento to review the data and uncovered “a revelation of what the dimension of the problem was.” Over the eight years ending in 2013, 4.3 million Californians — about 1 in 6 adults — had lost their driving privileges as a result of an unpaid traffic ticket.

During that same time period, licenses had been restored to fewer than 70,000 people.

California was experiencing an epidemic of government-imposed hardship that was forcing millions of residents to choose between breaking the law by driving without a license and being unable to get to work. And no one — not the Legislature, not the courts, not the DMV — had bothered to ask the extent of what was going on.

It is a story that any Californian who has been pulled over for a traffic violation knows painfully well: These days, the cost of the ticket can easily be far more than what anyone living paycheck-to-paycheck can absorb.

Today, a $100 base fine for a relatively minor infraction such as failure to carry proof of auto insurance has become a $490 infraction. If the individual misses the deadline to either pay the ticket or appear in court, the cost balloons to $815.

Amnesty window

Effective Oct. 1, California opened an opportunity for more than 4 million people to get back on their feet — or more precisely, back in their cars.

A traffic citation amnesty period created by the Legislature earlier this year will run through March 31, 2017.

Those with unpaid tickets that were issued before Jan. 1, 2013, can contact the county in which they received their ticket and have their debt reduced by either 50 percent or 80 percent, depending on their income level. More importantly, they can have their driver’s licenses restored.

Those with unpaid tickets that were issued after Jan. 1, 2013, will still owe the entire outstanding amount, but can initiate a payment plan and have their driving privileges reinstated.

The restoration of driver’s licenses, said Herald, will be a very big deal, as it could help end a destructive cycle.

“These suspensions make it harder for people to get and keep jobs,” according to a report issued by the Western Center earlier this year. “Ultimately, they keep people in long cycles of poverty that are difficult if not impossible to overcome.”

Ventura County court officials say they already try to work with traffic law violators to accommodate their ability to pay.

“We try to build more flexibility into our program, knowing there are cases where some people don’t have the money,” said Robert Sherman, assistant court executive. “We already try to work with people based on their ability to pay, but in some cases people just don’t come to court. That’s when their license gets suspended.”

County courts had little time to prepare for the amnesty period, which opened just three months after being established by lawmakers.

“Ordinarily, we would have about six months to get all the parameters in place in our system, so this will be a challenge for a lot of the courts,” said Sherman. “There are a lot more hoops to prepare for the program this time around, and we are looking at payment plans and discount rates according to income levels.”

The creation of the amnesty period brings to the fore in California an issue that has bubbled up across the nation in recent years — the increasing use of fines as revenue sources for local governments, and the havoc that it has created in low-income communities.

A report by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice earlier this year found that law enforcement in Ferguson, Missouri, is “shaped by the city’s focus on revenue rather than by public safety needs.”

In its report, the Western Center on Law & Poverty asserts practices in California “are chillingly similar.”

Tacking on fees

So, how did a $100 ticket become a $490 problem?

For years, whenever California lawmakers went looking for a new source of money to fund programs, the most painless way to do it was to tack on another assessment to traffic fines.

Today, there are a dozen assessments, fees and surcharges added to base traffic fines. The revenue is directed to all manner of programs — county general funds, the Department of Justice’s DNA lab, emergency medical services, court construction, peace officer training, motorcycle safety programs, wildlife preservation and more.

Each new assessment and increase in assessments was relatively modest, but the cumulative effect is not.

“It was a frog-in-hot-water deal,” said Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, who has taken the lead in the Legislature in calling for a reassessment in how courts are funded. “I voted to approve some of the penalty assessments, and I was wrong. It just got worse and worse.”

Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer said he does not think Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration is seeking to reduce existing assessments, but acknowledged they may have reached their limit.

“There is a carrying capacity to how many fees you can put on infractions,” he said.

Brown expressed that sentiment more pointedly in a veto message when he rejected a 2011 bill that sought to raise assessments further. “Loading more and more costs on traffic tickets has been too easy a source of new revenue,” he wrote. “Fines should be based on what is a reasonable punishment, not on paying for more general fund activities.”

Hertzberg views the amnesty program as a short-term fix.

“Hopefully, it will allow a number of people to get their driver’s licenses back,” he said. “Then you’ve got to solve the problem. What it comes down to is, how do we fund the courts?”

Herald believes that the political environment may exist to take on the issue, as it has drawn concern from both liberals worried about the toll traffic fines have taken on the poor and conservatives upset about the amount of money government is taking from those who have committed relatively minor offenses.

“There is a consensus that the current system is broken and needs a significant scaling back of the fines and fees,” he said. “That’s easier said than done. Those add-ons, they all go someplace. They all have a constituency, and there are some very powerful constituencies.”

Hertzberg hopes there will be a serious attempt in the Legislature next year to look at traffic fines — and that the conversation will begin not with asking how much revenue the courts and other government agencies need to receive from fines, but rather by lawmakers asking a far more fundamental question:

“What should the price be for making an illegal left turn?”

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