Editorial: California is steering toward more reasonable traffic ticket laws

Here’s something to elicit happy honks from California motorists: Two of the more abusive aspects of traffic citations — “bail for trial” and excessive fines — are being hauled off the road.

California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye last week ordered the state’s traffic courts to stop requiring drivers who want to contest a moving violation to pay their fine first. This is very good news for motorists, especially poor ones. Even if they get a refund when they prevail, the pay-first system is a clear violation of the constitutional right to due process. People shouldn’t lose their access to justice because they don’t have the cash to pay a ticket.

And a lot of people can’t afford to pay the hefty fines and add-on assessments that come with a moving violation in the state of California. In just the last eight years, more than 4 million drivers have had their licenses suspended because they didn’t pay a ticket or missed a court date, according to a recent report by a coalition of civil and legal rights groups.

Sure, some of those 4 million were probably scofflaws, but it’s difficult to believe that the rest would have chosen to give up the right to drive if they could have paid the ticket. A lost license is a much heavier penalty. A study in New Jersey found that 42% of people who lose their licenses lose their jobs as well.

The average $100 base fine in California is loaded with almost $400 in assessments to pay for state, county and court programs and services, many of which have no connection to driving or making the roads safer. And if a payment deadline is missed, the base fine jumps by $315.


Another tap of the horn is in order for efforts to rein in those add-ons, accumulated over the years as lawmakers tried to fund worthy programs. Cantil-Sakauye is appointing a commission to look at the bigger issues of court access and the impact of fines and penalties on those who receive them. The Legislature is looking at fines too. Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) and Sen. Loni Hancock (D-Berkeley), chair of the Senate Public Safety Committee, sent letters to the state Judicial Council and to state Legislative Analyst Mac Taylor last week asking them to come up with a “more rational fee structure.”

“Irrational” is a good description of the system we have now, which injures motorists and chokes the county and state programs that rely on the assessment revenue. The state is carrying about $10 billion in unpaid ticket fines and penalties, some of which Gov. Jerry Brown is trying to recoup in this year’s budget by offering to slash ticket debts for those stuck in “a hellhole of desperation.”

This wreck should be junked, and now, it seems, the tow trucks are on the way. Beep-beep for that.

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