Traffic ticket fights may be on rise
A state rule would prohibit judges from requiring drivers to pay fines before contesting citations.
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.”
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.