SACRAMENTO BEE EDITORIAL: Taking the higher road to clear up overdue tickets

By the Editorial Board

October 8, 2015

With its pointless punitive cycle of fines and late fees, California's traffic ticket system long has been a source of oppression for millions of motorists, burdening them with mounting debt they can't pay and depriving them of the driving privileges they need to remain employed.

It's a double-whammy that someone had to put the brakes on. Gov. Jerry Brown and Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Los Angeles, did just that with an amnesty program that launched last week.

From now until March 31, 2017, drivers with tickets that were due on or before Jan. 1, 2013, will be allowed to pay them off at a discount. Everyone will get at least 50 percent off. The poorest Californians will get 80 percent off. The state will waive all penalties and allow people to pay in installments.

Most importantly, drivers who lost their licenses because they couldn't afford to pay will be able to get their driving privileges reinstated immediately. And under a separate bill Brown signed into law, motorists can now fight their tickets in court before paying their fines.

That's the good news.

The bad news - indeed, the tone-deaf news - 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.

As it stands, more than 4 million Californians have lost their driving privileges because they weren't able to pay a ticket, according to a report from the Western Center on Law and Poverty. Many of those same people are trapped in a cycle of debt and poverty, which benefits neither the state nor anyone else.

It's no wonder then that California - like Ferguson, Mo., the poster child for padding its government budget with money from the poor - has come under such criticism from advocates for poor people and minorities.

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.

What's more, many Californians aren't being punished for serious crimes. They are struggling to recover from moving violations, such as speeding, running red lights and failing to stop at stop signs. Some face fines for non-traffic infractions such as loitering, trespassing and littering.

The amnesty program by no means solves all of these underlying problems. More drivers will undoubtedly fall victim to California's fee trap. But for people already struggling make ends meet while also appeasing the DMV, this will be welcome reprieve.

  • Caption: Randall Benton / A Lincoln police officer stops a car in 2010. From now until March 31, 2017, drivers with tickets that were due on or before Jan. 1, 2013, can pay them off at a discount.