Q&A: What you need to know about California’s traffic proposal decriminalizing most tickets

California’s court leaders plan to send the Legislature a proposal to make traffic violations civil offenses.


California’s court leaders plan to send the Legislature a proposal to make traffic violations civil offenses, removing them from the criminal arena.

The plan would protect drivers from possible arrest and massive fines for failing to show up on the date written on a ticket.

The proposal, strongly backed by California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, is in the drafting stage. Court leaders hope to work with the Legislature next year to adopt a final plan.

Cantil-Sakauye said the intention is to have minor traffic citations “decided in civil court, so the penalties, the consequences, and maybe the emotions, won’t run so high.”

“It will be reasonable and fair, and we can look to making sure it’s not unduly burdensome on the poor,” the chief justice said at a meeting of court leaders.

More than 4 million traffic tickets are given in California each year, and more than 70% of the state’s criminal cases involve those citations.

Ventura County Superior Court Judge Mark S. Borrell, who worked on the proposal, said the hope is to give courts and users more flexibility.

“We can make the system more in line with people’s expectations and less procedurally frustrating,” the judge said.

Several other states handle traffic infractions as civil matters.

California’s proposal would largely end the criminal rules now used in traffic court and reduce the burden of proof. A person would have to pay the ticket if the evidence showed he or she “more likely than not” committed the traffic infraction. Current rules require the evidence to show guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Which traffic offenses no longer would be considered criminal?

All tickets that are infractions no longer would be considered criminal offenses.

These include running a stop sign, making an unsafe lane change, speeding up to 15 mph above the speed limit and driving without a working tail light.

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Which traffic tickets would remain in the criminal system?

Tickets for offenses that are misdemeanors would continue to be handled in the criminal system. These include citations for driving under the influence and knowingly driving with a suspended license for a DUI conviction.

How we can take minor traffic violations out of the criminal arena ... so the penalties, the consequences, and maybe the emotions won't run so high?

— California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye

What happens if a driver fails to show up for the court date on the ticket?

Just as in a civil case, the judge decides the matter without the defendant. A default judgment is entered. That means if the driver is found guilty, he or she will have to pay the fine that the original citation carried.

If the driver has a good excuse for not appearing, a judge might let him or her return at a different date.

Drivers also would be able to contest tickets in writing without having to appear in court. But if they lose, they would not get a second trial before a judge. They still would have the right to appeal.

What incentive would people have to pay their tickets?

Not paying a ticket still could result in more fines and a suspension of a person’s license to drive.

Moving minor traffic infractions into a civil arena would not affect how a court collects fines that already have been imposed.

Judges would continue to have discretion to issue fines above the amount on an unpaid ticket and to take into consideration a person’s ability to pay when deciding whether to reduce fines.

But a person no longer would face the loss of a driver’s license or a $300 additional assessment for failing to appear on the date on the ticket.

Why do court leaders want to change the rules of evidence?

Criminal court rules can be difficult to understand for people who did not go to law school. Most people who go to traffic court do not have lawyers. One thing won’t change: The officer who issued the ticket will be required to appear in court when the driver contests it.

Twitter: @mauradolan


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