‘Pay to play’ traff ic f ine pol­icy ends

Driv­ers won’t have to put up money be­fore be­ing able to con­test their tick­ets, court pol­i­cy­mak­ers de­cide.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Maura Dolan and Brit­tny Me­jia

SAN FRAN­CISCO — Amid ris­ing public clamor over driv­ers los­ing their li­censes be­cause of un­paid traf­fic tick­ets, the lead­ers of Cal­i­for­nia’s court sys­tem voted unan­i­mously Mon­day to end re­quire­ments that peo­ple pay the fines be­fore be­ing al­lowed to chal­lenge them.

The emer­gency ac­tion by ju­di­cial pol­i­cy­mak­ers comes as leg­is­la­tors in Sacra­mento pre­pare to vote on a pro­posal to slash the cost of delin­quent fines, pro­vide pay­ment plans and re­in­state driver’s li­censes that have been suspended for non­pay­ment and fail­ure to ap­pear in court.

Nearly 5 mil­lion Cal­i­for­ni­ans since 2006 have had their li­censes suspended for un­paid tick­ets, which have soared in cost be­cause the state has at­tached a va­ri­ety of fees to pay for var­i­ous pro­grams. On Mon­day, the Ju­di­cial Coun­cil adopted a new rule end­ing what has been called “a pay-to-play sys­tem,” but some court clerks didn’t im­me­di­ately get the mes­sage.

David Aceves, 22, a fur­ni­ture store em­ployee who lives in South Los An­ge­les, went to the Metropoli­tan Court­house in down­town L.A. with hopes he could sched­ule a hear­ing on a traf-

fic ticket for a bro­ken tail­light. He owed $527.

A few hours af­ter the Ju­di­cial Coun­cil’s new rule went into ef­fect, a court clerk told him that he had to pay to get a court date, he said.

All Aceves could af­ford was $100, he said, and he still owes $427. Although he paid his car reg­is­tra­tion, he can­not get a sticker un­til the traf­fic ticket is fully paid, he said.

“You have to pay to get an an­swer, and if you don’t pay they don’t an­swer any of your ques­tions,” Aceves said. “They don’t re­al­ize you have rent to pay.... You barely have enough to pay for stuff at home.”

Ruben Gal­le­gos, a court clerk tend­ing to traf­fic mat­ters, said he had not been told about the Ju­di­cial Coun­cil’s ac­tion that morn­ing.

He searched his com­puter un­suc­cess­fully for a no­tice and then spoke to a su­per­vi­sor. He said driv­ers would have to pay be­fore con­test­ing tick­ets un­til his of­fice re­ceived for­mal word oth­er­wise.

The new rule is in­tended to end the prac­tice of re­quir­ing driv­ers to pay the ticket, which is tech­ni­cally bail, be­fore they can con­test it in court. Judges will still be able to charge bail if they have rea­son to be­lieve the per­son won’t show up for trial.

Some judges fear the new rule will f lood the courts with re­quests for tri­als and waste the time of court em­ploy­ees and law en­force­ment of­fi­cers called to tes­tify

Poverty lawyers com­plain the Ju­di­cial Coun­cil did not go far enough. Un­paid traf­fic tick­ets amount to more than $10 bil­lion owed the state, ac­cord­ing to a re­cent re­port by the Lawyers Com­mit­tee for Civil Rights of the San Fran­cisco Bay Area and other groups.

The new rule does not give re­lief to driv­ers who al­ready have failed to at­tend their first court ap­pear­ance be­cause they couldn’t af­ford to pay or didn’t get a cour­tesy no­tice.

They will still have to bear the full cost of the vi­o­la­tion be­fore be­ing al­lowed to chal­lenge it.

“Vir­tu­ally ev­ery county in the state has been re­quir­ing full bail pay­ment to con­test a fail­ure to ap­pear,” said Michael Her­ald, leg­isla­tive ad­vo­cate for the West­ern Cen­ter on Law & Poverty, “and to­day’s rule does not help those clients over­come those prob­lems.”

Chief Jus­tice Tani Can­tilSakauye said she was proud the coun­cil had acted so swiftly. She called for the new rule three weeks ago, and the pro­posal had to be re­searched, drafted and made avail­able for public com­ment. The ju­di­cial lead­ers met by tele­phone con­fer­ence, and their dis­cus­sion could be heard live on the court’s web­site.

Although the rule is now ef­fec­tive, courts have un­til Sept. 15 to en­sure their forms and web­sites ref lect it. The coun­cil asked one of its com­mit­tees to come up with ways to help peo­ple who must pay the en­tire cost of the ticket be­cause they pre­vi­ously had missed their court ap­pear­ance.

“This is a his­toric meet­ing,” Can­til-Sakauye said. “This is an im­por­tant first step to ad­dress an ur­gent ac­cess-to-jus­tice is­sue. More work lies ahead.”

Those wait­ing in long lines at the L.A. court­house to re­solve traf­fic mat­ters knew lit­tle about the re­lief they had just been given. Some suc­ceeded in get­ting a trial date with­out pay­ing; oth­ers did not.

Os­car Lopez, 31, tried to get an­other ex­ten­sion be­fore hav­ing to pay a $200 ticket is­sued in De­cem­ber be­cause his car was belch­ing smoke.

A clerk in­formed him he could not have an­other ex­ten­sion but gave him a court date of June 22. Lopez did not have to pay up­front but said he was wor­ried he still wouldn’t have the money by the end of the month.

“It’s tough, es­pe­cially when work is slow,” Lopez said.

Other driv­ers said they were grate­ful that state leg­is­la­tors and pol­i­cy­mak­ers were fi­nally pay­ing at­ten­tion to the traf­fic ticket sys­tem.

Her­mann Thoni, 80, of Los An­ge­les said he re­ceived a speed­ing ticket Oct. 16, 2011. The of­fi­cer told him he would re­ceive a no­tice in the mail with in­struc­tions on how to pay.

No no­tice came. Thoni, re­lieved, fig­ured his ticket had been lost. Six months af­ter the ci­ta­tion, he re­ceived a phone call say­ing he owed $1,000 — $500 for the ticket and $500 in penal­ties.

He said he con­sulted a law firm that ad­ver­tised about traf­fic tick­ets and learned the legal fee would be more than the cost of the ticket. He even­tu­ally ob­tained a pay­ment plan, but be­fore his fi­nal pay­ment was due, the Depart­ment of Mo­tor Ve­hi­cles no­ti­fied him that his li­cense had been suspended be­cause of non­pay­ment of the ticket.

The DMV fixed the prob­lem, but he had to pay a higher in­sur­ance rate for 31⁄ 2 years, he said.

“It’s noth­ing but col­lect­ing taxes,” Thoni said in an in­ter­view at his con­do­minium. “I fig­ure it’s how the state treats its peo­ple — col­lect money any way they can.”

Mark Fin­ster said he was stunned when he learned he owed $490 for run­ning a red light on his bi­cy­cle last sum­mer in the Santa Mon­ica Moun­tains.

“I thought there’s no way I’d ever pay that,” said the 27year-old Mar Vista res­i­dent. “We’ve all got­ten tick­ets.... It’s part of living in L.A., own­ing a car, get­ting park­ing tick­ets. You prac­ti­cally work it into your bud­get. But al­most $500 for a bike ticket? Come on.”

He said he showed up for an 8 a.m. ar­raign­ment at the Chatsworth court­house, and there were al­ready about 60 other peo­ple wait­ing. A bailiff said peo­ple could en­ter a plea but had to agree to a later court date to ar­gue their cases.

Fin­ster pleaded no con­test and asked for a re­duced sen­tence. He was or­dered to pay the full amount.

The sys­tem “fa­vors those who have that kind of money to throw around to fight th­ese kinds of things,” he said.

Brian van der Brug L.A. Times

NEARLY 5 mil­lion Cal­i­for­ni­ans since 2006 have had li­censes suspended for un­paid tick­ets.

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