Time to rein in California's traffic ticket surcharges

Gov. Brown should propose legislation to reassess years and years of piled-on traffic ticket surcharges

One reason you pay so much when you are ticketed for, say, driving with a broken taillight is that there's a surcharge added to your ticket to help victims of violent crimes. There's also an add-on that pays for training police officers, another to provide services to people with traumatic brain injuries, another to build new court facilities and one to protect the state's wildlife.

In fact, about 80% of what Californians pay for their moving violations isn't part of the base fine at all, but is necessary to cover the many assessments and surcharges tacked on over the years to pay for state and county government operations that have nothing to do with cars or driving.

These add-ons have raised billions of dollars over the five decades since the first assessment was levied on traffic tickets, a modest 5% charge to fund driver education programs in schools. But enthusiasm for this seemingly bottomless funding source has gone too far. Tickets are now so expensive that people are increasingly not paying them even though the alternative is the loss of a driver's license or jail time.

As a result, ticket revenue has been declining; over the last eight years, the state has run up about $10 billion in uncollected debt from unpaid tickets. Several of the funds that rely on ticket fines — including the Peace Officer's Training Fund — are facing insolvency next year in part, officials say, because of offenders' failure to pay.

Is it any surprise that many people aren't paying when a typical ticket with a base fine of $100 is laden with so many add-ons that the final cost is nearly $500? And a ticket with a base fine of $500 will run you nearly $2,000. Don't pay immediately, and a $300 penalty is added.

A recent report by a coalition of civil rights groups noted that excessive traffic fees, combined with harsh penalties for missed deadlines and reduced access to courts, have led to more than 4 million Californians' losing their licenses over the last eight years. Only a fraction of them have been able to get their licenses back, in part because doing so requires full payment.

The price of a ticket ought to be set by government in an effort to disincentivize misbehavior on the roads. It should not be raised every time government needs money for a program — even a worthy one.

Gov. Jerry Brown, to his credit, is proposing an amnesty his second since taking office. For those who qualify, outstanding debt would be cut in half. In 2012, when he vetoed a bill that would have added an additional $1 per ticket for spinal cord injury research, Brown wrote: "Loading more and more costs on traffic tickets has been too easy a source of new revenue. Fines should be based on what is reasonable punishment, not on paying for more general fund activities."

Brown should go further and propose legislation to reassess years and years of piled-on surcharges. Yes, there will still be revenue at the end of the process, but the overriding goal should be to price tickets so that they are sufficiently punitive but not unaffordable for millions of Californians.

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