Traf­fic ticket fights may be on rise

A state rule would pro­hibit judges from re­quir­ing driv­ers to pay fines be­fore con­test­ing ci­ta­tions.

Los Angeles Times - - CALIFORNIA - By Maura Dolan

SAN FRAN­CISCO — An emer­gency state court rule sched­uled for a vote Mon­day would make it eas­ier for driv­ers to con­test traf­fic tick­ets — but will do noth­ing to help those al­ready sad­dled with fines and fees they can­not af­ford to pay, ac­cord­ing to lawyers and court of­fi­cials.

The state has added on charges that make the cost of a rou­tine traf­fic ticket nearly $500, an amount that rapidly inf lates when dead­lines are missed. Although state courts charge peo­ple many fees — raised dur­ing the bud­get cri­sis — to use the legal sys­tem, the out­cry has been loud­est in the traf­fic arena.

Lawyers rep­re­sent­ing the poor have com­plained that judges in some coun­ties have been re­quir­ing driv­ers to pay the fines as a con­di­tion of con­test­ing them, a prac­tice that Cal­i­for­nia Chief Jus­tice Tani Can­til-Sakauye called “pay to play” and vowed to stop.

“The traf­fic in­frac­tion penalty con­sists of a fine that is then quadruped by all the fees that have noth­ing to do with the per­son’s cul­pa­bil­ity,” said Christine Sun of the ACLU of North­ern Cal­i­for­nia. “Folks of color are dis­pro­por­tion­ately stopped for traf­fic ci­ta­tions, and they are now pay­ing for things that the state gen­eral fund should cover.”

But the new rule be­fore the Ju­di­cial Coun­cil, the pol­i­cy­mak­ing body for the courts, does not go far enough, some lawyers com­plain.

It would pre­vent courts from re­quir­ing pay­ment be­fore a hear­ing only if the driver showed up to the first court ap­pear­ance, called an ar­raign­ment. Af­ter re­ceiv­ing a ticket, driv­ers are sup­posed to be no­ti­fied in the mail of the amount of the fine and the date they must ap­pear if they want to chal­lenge it.

But the most im­me­di­ate and press­ing prob­lem in­volves thou­sands of driv­ers who al­ready missed that first court ap­pear­ance, ei­ther be­cause they did not get the no­tice, went to the wrong court­house, could not pay the bail or sim­ply did not want to deal with the mat­ter, said Michael Her­ald, leg­isla­tive ad­vo­cate for the West­ern Cen­ter on Law & Poverty.

Nearly 5 mil­lion driv­ers have had their li­censes suspended be­cause of an in­abil--

ity to pay, and “the bulk of them are peo­ple who didn’t ap­pear the first time,” he said. They have flocked to legal ser­vice pro­grams for help.

“The No. 1 rea­son peo­ple walk into their of­fices seek­ing legal as­sis­tance is traf­fic court and li­cense sus­pen­sions,” Her­ald said.

Once the fi­nal draft of the pro­posed rule was re­leased, “all our at­tor­neys just hit the roof,” he said. “This is un­be­liev­able.”

Some judges are wor­ried for dif­fer­ent rea­sons. They have writ­ten to the Ju­di­cial Coun­cil with con­cerns that the new rule could f lood the courts with peo­ple seek­ing tri­als on tick­ets.

With­out re­quir­ing tick­eted driv­ers to first post bail — usu­ally the equiv­a­lent of cost of the ticket — they might not show up, wast­ing the time of the court staff and the law en­force­ment of­fi­cer who is­sued the ticket and was or­dered to ap­pear, judges wrote.

Some tick­eted driv­ers also might ask for a trial as a gam­bit, hop­ing the law en­force­ment of­fi­cer will fail to show and the case will just be dis­missed, wrote River­side County Su­pe­rior Court Pre­sid­ing Judge Harold W. Hopp.

Aides to the Ju­di­cial Coun­cil said the prob­lem is com­plex, and the emer­gency rule may be only the first step. More legal re­search must be done be­fore the coun­cil can ad­dress other prob­lems, and the task may re­quire the in­volve­ment of the Leg­is­la­ture and Gov. Jerry Brown’s ad­min­is­tra­tion, staff mem­bers said.

“This is just a start,” Can­til-Sakauye said. “We are work­ing with the other branches to fix the is­sues.”

The ACLU iden­ti­fied Del Norte, Fresno, Men­do­cino, Tuolumne, Mari­posa, Tu­lare, Madera, Shasta, Santa Bar­bara, River­side and Im­pe­rial coun­ties as hav­ing “prob­lem­atic poli­cies” based on the in­for­ma­tion on their web­sites.

The web­site for San Di- ego County Su­pe­rior Court, for ex­am­ple, said peo­ple must pay the cost of the ticket if they want to re­quest a trial with­out an ar­raign­ment. “Credit/debit card pay­ments can­not be ac­cepted for this op­tion,” it said.

If the driver checks in for the court ap­pear­ance on the date of the ci­ta­tion, “you may still be re­quired to pay bail in or­der to sched­ule your trial,” the ad­vi­sory said.

The ad­vi­sories and mailed no­tices are of­ten con­fus­ing, lawyers said. “If you read the fine print, maybe you can fig­ure it out,” Sun said, adding that some coun­ties changed their poli­cies af­ter the ACLU com­plained.

The Los An­ge­les County court’s web­site con­tains no such ad­vi­sory.

“But we know the L.A. courts were re­quir­ing bail be­cause an ACLU at­tor­ney went in to con­test a speed­ing ticket and was told by the clerk he had to pay be­fore see­ing a judge,” Sun said.

Sev­eral legal groups told the Ju­di­cial Coun­cil that Los An­ge­les courts cite thou­sands of peo­ple each week for fail­ing to ap­pear in traf­fic cases.

A state law passed dur­ing the re­ces­sion may be partly to blame, lawyers said. It per­mit­ted courts to charge bail for traf­fic of­fend­ers who wanted to sched­ule a trial with­out ap­pear­ing first for an ar­raign­ment. Lawyers say many courts mis­in­ter­preted the law.

Re­tired Fresno County Traf­fic Com­mis­sioner Robert J. Thomp­son said the pro­posed rule is long over- due.

He spent years on the bench hear­ing from peo­ple too poor to pay the fines, levied for vi­o­la­tions rang­ing from rolling through a stop sign to a cracked wind­shield that did not get fixed in time.

“For some­one on un­em­ploy­ment or a sin­gle par­ent on as­sis­tance, the fines in my opin­ion are un­re­al­is­tic,” said Thomp­son, who left the bench two years ago. “The 8th Amend­ment says there should not be ex­ces­sive fines.”

The ACLU con­tends the re­quire­ment of bail be­fore a hear­ing vi­o­lates the Con­sti­tu­tion’s guar­an­tees of due process and equal pro­tec­tion.

Bail is sup­posed to be charged only if the per­son is a flight risk, lawyers said.

Mon­day’s ses­sion on traf­fic fines starts at 8 a.m. and will be heard live on the Cal­i­for­nia court’s web­site.

Michael J. Kennedy, a crim­i­nal de­fense lawyer in River­side County, said he first learned that peo­ple were be­ing “ex­torted” in traf­fic court years ago when he went in to fight his own ticket.

He pre­vailed, but those who were not lawyers had to pay up­front, he said.

“I have been writ­ing to peo­ple for years about this,” Kennedy said. “I wrote the chief jus­tice. I wrote the ACLU. I wrote the pre­sid­ing judges. No­body gave a damn.”

Damian Do­var­ganes As­so­ci­ated Press

PEO­PLE line up out­side the Metropoli­tan Court­house, which han­dles traf­fic ci­ta­tions and other mat­ters, in L.A. Some judges worry that a pro­posed rule will f lood the courts with peo­ple seek­ing tri­als on tick­ets.

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