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 traffic 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 flood 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 Cantil-Sakauye 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 reflect 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 27-year-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.