Fair penal­ties for poor driv­ers

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION -

The set­tle­ment of a law­suit against Solano County Su­pe­rior Court this week is good news for Cal­i­for­ni­ans of lim­ited means who get tick­eted for mi­nor traf­fic vi­o­la­tions in that North­ern Cal­i­for­nia county. Un­der an agree­ment be­tween pub­lic in­ter­est groups and the court, peo­ple who le­git­i­mately can­not af­ford to pay Cal­i­for­nia’s traf­fic fines will be able to pay re­duced amounts, pay in in­stall­ments or do com­mu­nity ser­vice.

This is a fairer way to deal with mi­nor traf­fic tick­ets that doesn’t send driv­ers into the poor­house — or to jail. The state’s ex­or­bi­tant traf­fic fines are tough for any­one to pay, so laden as they are with add-on fees that in­flate a $100 ticket to nearly $500 in the end. Worse, those who don’t pay be­cause they can’t af­ford to are hit with higher fines and may have their li­censes sus­pended, ex­pos­ing them to even more fines and pos­si­bly a jail term if they keep driv­ing.

Other courts should follow Solano County’s ex­am­ple with­out hav­ing to be sued. Be­sides, a bill signed by Gov. Brown in June pro­hibits courts from sus­pend­ing driv­ers’ li­censes for fail­ing to pay a fine, so al­ter­na­tive penal­ties make sense. Brown cor­rectly noted that de­priv­ing poor peo­ple of the abil­ity to drive legally puts them in eco­nomic peril, and makes it even more likely they can’t af­ford to pay a fine. Li­censes can still be yanked for se­ri­ous traf­fic vi­o­la­tions, such as driv­ing un­der the in­flu­ence, or for miss­ing a court date.

The court set­tle­ment and leg­is­la­tion are re­cent ex­am­ples of how Cal­i­for­nia has been mov­ing to­ward a more just method of re­solv­ing mi­nor traf­fic tick­ets since 2015, when a coali­tion of civil rights groups high­lighted how the sys­tem dis­pro­por­tion­ally af­fects mil­lions of Cal­i­for­ni­ans of lim­ited means. Some 4 mil­lion driv­ers have had their li­censes sus­pended in the past decade be­cause they failed to pay a fine or ap­pear in court.

Shortly af­ter the re­port, the Ju­di­cial Coun­cil agreed to stop re­quir­ing peo­ple to pay fines be­fore they could con­test a ticket, and the gover­nor of­fered a tem­po­rary op­por­tu­nity for driv­ers in ar­rears to get their li­censes back by pay­ing a re­duced fine. By De­cem­ber, 192,000 peo­ple had been re­united with their driv­ers li­cense. A bill now pend­ing in the leg­is­la­ture — SB 185 by Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys) — would make pay­ment al­ter­na­tives sim­i­lar to the ones in Solano County avail­able statewide, such as deeply re­duced fines for in­di­gent de­fen­dants.

Al­though these ef­forts are pos­i­tive, they are still piece­meal fixes to the larger prob­lem of mi­nor traf­fic in­frac­tions po­ten­tially ex­pos­ing driv­ers to the same eco­nomic and le­gal penal­ties as se­ri­ous crimes. That may soon change, how­ever. The Cal­i­for­nia Supreme Court chief jus­tice’s Fu­tures Com­mis­sion has pro­posed to fun­da­men­tally trans­form the way the state deals with rou­tine traf­fic tick­ets by treat­ing them as civil mat­ters rather than crim­i­nal cases. Se­ri­ous traf­fic in­frac­tions such as driv­ing un­der the in­flu­ence would re­main crim­i­nal vi­o­la­tions, but every­thing else would be han­dled ad­min­is­tra­tively — like park­ing tick­ets are han­dled.

The de­tails are still be­ing worked out, and some of the changes would re­quire the Leg­is­la­ture’s ap­proval, but the pro­posal has tremen­dous po­ten­tial. It makes sense to move to a sys­tem that de­crim­i­nal­izes traf­fic in­frac­tions, doesn’t pe­nal­ize poor peo­ple un­fairly and bet­ter matches the pun­ish­ment to the in­frac­tion.

At some point, state law­mak­ers also must ad­dress the af­ford­abil­ity of fines. Traf­fic tick­ets have been used as rev­enue gen­er­a­tors for all sorts of un­re­lated pro­grams, such as pro­tect­ing wildlife and help­ing victims of vi­o­lent crimes. Over the years, this prac­tice has re­sulted in some of the high­est traf­fic fines in the na­tion. If a $100 ticket cost just $100, the state might not strug­gle to get peo­ple to pay fines in the first place.

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