California changes rules on traffic ticket fines

Original article appeared in the San Jose Mercury News.

By Josh Richman

California drivers can now appear in court to challenge their traffic tickets without paying a fine first, under a new rule adopted unanimously by the state’s Judicial Council on Monday.

“The system is broken,” said Christine Sun, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. “It has become clear that we are funding our judicial system through unfair fines and fees that act as a hidden tax on poor people — who may not be able to afford contesting their citation — and people of color, who are disproportionately pulled over and cited. This has to stop, and we’re pleased that the Judicial Council is taking action.”

Supporters say the change is a good first step, but still leaves millions of low-income California drivers in the lurch if they miss their initial court date for any reason. Sun said she hopes the Judicial Council continues looking into the practices of local courts that harm low income people and communities of color.
Traffic courts in some counties — including Del Norte, Fresno, Mendocino, Tuolumne, Mariposa, Tulare, Madera, and Shasta — have required drivers who receive traffic tickets to pay fines before they can appear in court to contest the tickets. Civil rights groups argued that making people pay for their day in court violates constitutional due process.

Superior Courts in Alameda and San Mateo counties said they were not impacted by the ruling because they did not require bail be paid before a court appearance. Both courts said they would be taking a look at their notices and websites to ensure the new rule is clearly reflected.

Officials at the Superior Courts in Santa Clara, Solano, Marin and Contra Costa counties did not return requests for comment.

The new ban on this practice takes effect immediately, though courts have until Sept. 15 to ensure their forms, written instructions and websites comply with notification requirements.
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, who had fast-tracked this change in recent weeks, issued a statement Monday saying the “historic” change is “an important first step to address an urgent access-to-justice issue. More work lies ahead.”
This was only one of several ways in which California traffic courts have saddled millions of people with unjust fines and fees and limited their ability to contest charges, according to a recent report by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, East Bay Community Law Center and other groups. More than 4 million California drivers have had their licenses suspended in the last eight years because they couldn’t pay full fines for minor infractions, the report found — and because many jobs require a driver’s license, the practice can lead to chronic unemployment and poverty.
Mari Castaldi, an East Bay Community Law Center program coordinator, said the new rule adopted Monday doesn’t help to those who’ve already missed an initial court date and want to appear later to contest the ticket, set up a payment plan, or request community service in lieu of a fine.
“We were hoping that this rule would also provide relief for those individuals,” she said. “Even with this new rule, people who miss their first court date still bear the burden of paying all their fines, fees and assessments before they can appear in front of a judge.”
Castaldi argued that man people who are low-income, unemployed, on government aid, or homeless don’t have enough money to pay their traffic fines or can’t leave work to go to court. Many of them, she said, just ignore their court dates, not realizing that there may be alternatives to paying or that their absence can lead to their licenses being suspended.
“There’s really no place in the current traffic court process for those circumstances to be taken into account,” said Castaldi. “You have one shot, and beyond that there are so many barriers erected to trying to solve it later.”
Sun said she’s optimistic that the Judicial Council will do more. “I definitely got that sense that this was just a first step and that they were looking at all sorts of access to justice issues,” she said, though “they feel constrained by some state statutes.”
The Legislature might be listening. SB 405 by state Sen. Robert Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, aims to help people get their licenses back by basing certain traffic penalties on drivers’ ability to pay, distinguishing between those who are unwilling and those who are unable. The state Senate approved the bill on a 37-0 vote last week, and now it’s pending before the Assembly; it would go hand-in-hand with Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget proposal for a traffic amnesty program for $10 billion of uncollected court-ordered debt.