Relief from the high cost of traffic tickets — for some Californians, at least

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.

That’s an irrationally high penalty for a minor offense, and 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 reckless driving, or for missing a court appearance for a traffic offense.

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 chance for drivers in arrears to get their licenses back by paying a reduced fine. That discount, which ended earlier this year, brought in millions of dollars from tickets that otherwise were likely to remain unpaid. 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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