The California Supreme Court on Monday unanimously upheld the 1984 state mandatory auto insurance law requiring motorists stopped for traffic violations to prove they have liability coverage or eventually face losing their licenses.
In their decision, the justices rejected claims that the new law is unconstitutional because it, in effect, requires low-income motorists to carry insurance without assuring that insurance will be available at rates they can afford.
The decision, one of the most far-reaching yet issued by the new and more conservative court, clears the way for a crackdown on uninsured motorists that had been suspended nearly for two years while the case challenging the law was pending.
Authorities said peace officers could begin enforcing the new law when the court's decision becomes final in 30 days.
The California Highway Patrol plans to meet with other state officials soon to decide whether to observe a "grace period" after the 30-day wait, a spokesman for the state attorney general's office said. But such an action would not preclude other agencies from imposing the new law on motorists, the spokesman added.
In its decision, the court noted that drivers unable to acquire minimum liability insurance could still obtain coverage through the state-backed "assigned risk" program that all private insurers are required to participate in. State-set rates in that program are usually more affordable than ordinary private insurance. About 250,000 motorists otherwise unable to find insurance are now covered in the program.
The justices said they were "not insensitive" to the plight of drivers in low-income areas who face high premiums because of the accident rates in their neighborhoods or to the "feeling of helplessness" among those unable to obtain private insurance.
"However, their case should be made to the Legislature, not this court," Justice Edward A. Panelli wrote for the court.
"So long as the legislatively mandated system meets minimum procedural due-process standards, as we found it does, we cannot . . . replace the Legislature's social judgment with our own," Panelli said. "To do so would be an egregious violation of the separation of powers."
In a concurring opinion, Justice Allen E. Broussard, joined by Justice Stanley Mosk, reluctantly agreed that the court should not block the implementation of the new law.
But he sharply criticized a system in which private companies have been "increasingly unwilling" to insure residents in low-income neighborhoods.
"When it comes to automobile liability insurance, the poor pay more or do without," he said. Broussard also pointed out that under the court's ruling, individual motorists could still raise challenges in criminal proceedings or Department of Motor Vehicle hearings to the fines or license revocations imposed on them through the law.
The ruling drew criticism from Armando M. Menocal III, a lawyer for Public Advocates Inc. of San Francisco, which represented a group challenging the law.
"We are extremely disappointed," Menocal said. "In the long run, a system that results in the poor, solely because of their status, having to pay the highest rates for insurance will not withstand challenge."
Menocal said he did not expect the challengers would ask the state court to rehear the case, nor would an appeal be taken to the U.S. Supreme Court because of the lack of a federal constitutional issue.
Deputy Atty. Gen. Christopher Foley, who defended state officials in the case, said he was pleased with the result. "The court rightly concluded that this was a legislative problem," he said.
State Atty. Gen. John K. Van de Kamp said: "Now that the court has upheld the effort to mandate minimum insurance for California motorists, the time has come for lawmakers to address the availability and affordability of auto insurance.
"As it stands now, car insurance is too expensive for many Californians," he said.
Under the law, known as the Robins-McAlister Financial Responsibility Act, motorists stopped for moving traffic violations are required to show proof of insurance or face a fine of up to $240. If they do not obtain insurance within 60 days they face revocation of their licenses to drive. An older law, which remained in effect, requires such proof when filing an accident report.
The new law was passed amid concern that an estimated 2 million motorists in the state, about 15% of all drivers, were driving without insurance. Supporters of the legislation argued that these motorists were responsible for 40% of the accidents, leaving their victims to pay the costs.
After it went into effect, the new law was applied in cases that led to the revocation of more than 100,000 driver licenses, according to state officials.
But no one knows how many motorists evaded the law by lying to police or highway patrolmen. The Department of Motor Vehicles attempted to verify the motorists' claims that they had insurance only in one of every 100 cases. Most of the 100,000 people who did lose their licenses had freely acknowledged to police that they did not have insurance.
The challenge to the legislation was brought by a group of Los Angeles residents led by Mary L. King, a 70-year old pensioner with an unblemished driving record living on a monthly Social Security payment of $260.
The plaintiffs in the suit argued that they were being denied their constitutional right to due process because the only insurance they could obtain was prohibitively expensive. Insurance in South-Central Los Angeles often exceeded $1,000 annually, they said. A Los Angeles Superior Court judge and a state Court of Appeal refused to grant their request for an injunction barring enforcement of the new law.
But in December, 1985, the state Supreme Court, then under Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird, agreed to hear the case, halting enforcement of the law until its constitutionality was resolved.
The justices first heard argument in June, 1986, but no ruling was issued by the time Bird and Justices Cruz Reynoso and Joseph R. Grodin left the court after their defeat in the fall election.
The dispute was re-argued last spring before the new court, now led by Chief Justice Malcolm M. Lucas, and including three new appointees of Gov. George Deukmejian.
Court to review order requiring county workers to be deputy voter registrars. (Metro, Page 3.)