Ukiah Daily Journal: ACLU: Mendocino County charging for traffic court dates is unconstitutional

Original article in the Ukiah Daily Journal

By Adam Randall

Mendocino County is one of at least eight Superior Courts in California that requires traffic citation fees to be paid-in-full before people can stand in front of a judge and dispute the allegations of a violation, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, which says the alleged practice is unconstitutional.
The ACLU alleges Mendocino, Del Norte, Fresno, Tuolumne, Mariposa, Tulare, Madera and Shasta counties are violating the public’s due process by demanding all traffic-related fines and fees be paid up-front, which the ACLU said can quickly escalate with additional assessments of $300 or more for those who are unable to pay.
A typical traffic ticket in California is nearly $500, which consists of a base fine of $100, with the additional fees generated typically being used for anything ranging from court construction to night court, according to the ACLU, which references a recent report by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights.
Such practices have resulted in 4 million California driver’s license suspensions over the past eight years because people can’t pay the full fines for minor infractions, the ACLU and the LCCR report claimed.
In Mendocino County, the fees are referred to as “bail,” which the ACLU says is unjust because paying traffic fines is not a condition of release.
On Thursday, the ACLU along with its legal counsel, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP of San Francisco, sent letters to the eight counties, including Mendocino County Presiding Judge David Nelson, requesting each to reverse its procedures on obtaining payment before court dates.
The ACLU is requesting that each county respond before May 28, or legal action may be taken. County records are also being sought pertaining to the alleged practices.
“The counties we identified were based on the amount of information available on its websites,” said Christine Sun, associate director of the ACLU of Northern California.
Asked about the total amount of county proceeds from the collected fees, Mendocino County Superior Court CEO Chris Ruhl, along with the court chief administrator, said the system can be complicated in regard to how the monies are divided up. A total amount of Mendocino County related profits wasn’t immediately available.
“Most infractions have administrative assessments, all set at the state level,” Ruhl said.
A conference with the court’s judicial counsel on the matter is also expected, he said.
Sun said requiring up-front payments on traffic violations presents a “huge incentive” for the court system.
“It’s a way to collect revenue for the court system and the state of California, which has added multiple fees,” Sun said.