California unveils amnesty program for unpaid traffic tickets

Original article can be found in SFGate.

By Kurtis Alexander

Millions of California motorists with suspended licenses have a chance to win back their driving privileges at a discount, starting Thursday, under a state amnesty program for unpaid traffic tickets.
The state is cutting fines by at least half and waiving late fees for payments on tickets that were due before Jan. 1, 2013, an effort to eliminate what Gov. Jerry Brown called a “hellhole of desperation” for those who can’t afford penalties and lost their licenses as a result.
Brown signed the amnesty legislation in June. It takes effect Thursday and runs until March 2017.
The measure is especially intended to help poor Californians, who will receive a deeper discount — 80 percent — when they settle long-unpaid tickets for such infractions as speeding or running a stop sign or red light.
More than 4 million Californians have lost their driver’s licenses because they weren’t able to pay a ticket, according to a report by the Western Center on Law and Poverty.
With an array of state and local fees tacked onto fines, tickets for routine traffic infractions in some cases approach $500. Expenses mount for drivers who fall so far behind that their licenses are suspended.
“If you have a low-income job and you’re supporting your kids, you can’t just come up with $2,000, which is what it can add up to, to get your license back,” said Stephanie Funt, an attorney for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.
Civil rights groups have long criticized California’s court and traffic fees as being biased against the poor. Some have even compared them with policies in Ferguson, Mo., where federal officials deemed the justice system an unfair money-making endeavor after last year’s fatal police shooting of Michael Brown.
May be 100,000 in S.F.
In San Francisco alone, as many as 100,000 people who have delinquent tickets may be eligible for amnesty, according to court officials.
San Francisco Superior Court Judge John Stewart called the amnesty program a “win-win.”
“It would relieve us from a burden of attempting to collect some stale debt,” he said. “And it benefits the individual by getting out from a pile of debt and getting a license back.”
Under the state program, drivers who are delinquent on tickets can have civil assessment fees dropped and their original penalties reduced by either 50 or 80 percent, depending on their income level. Those who lost their licenses for failing to pay tickets can apply to have them reinstated.
The offer applies to traffic and many nontraffic infractions, from not leashing a dog to violating BART’s no-eating policy on trains. Drunken-driving and reckless-driving tickets do not qualify. Neither do parking tickets.
Treasure Island resident Sean McCarthy plans to take advantage of the program immediately.
The 51-year-old truck mechanic got a ticket for having an expired registration, failed to pay the penalty — less than $200, he said — and saw that bill skyrocket to $2,700 after his license was revoked and he was caught driving.
McCarthy said he didn’t settle the original ticket because he had just lost his job. He hasn’t been able to land a mechanic’s position since, working instead in a building maintenance job that pays far less than what he once earned.
License is essential
“I need a driver’s license. It goes with my work,” McCarthy said. “You have to have a license just to apply for a job. You see what the problem is?”
San Francisco officials don’t know how many people will seek amnesty, but they’ve started a website and posted detailed instructions at traffic court.
The root problem, say advocates for the poor, is a system of rising traffic and court fees that state and local governments have built in recent years.
“This became a very convenient thing to do,” said Mike Herald, a legislative advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “Unfortunately, the degree to which local and even state governments have shifted funding responsibility on to the backs of very poor people has been huge.”
Herald said the spike in fees has backfired as penalties have simply gone unpaid. According to his organization, California has $10 billion in uncollected traffic-related court fines and fees.
About the amnesty
Who’s eligible?
People with tickets for which the fines were due by Jan. 1, 2013, and who haven’t made a payment after June 24, 2015, can get a payment discount of 50 to 80 percent and their driver’s license reinstated. Anyone who made a payment after June 24 can’t get a discount on any unpaid balance, but may be able to get their license reinstated.
Who’s not eligible?
People who owe victim restitution on a case or have certain misdemeanor or felony warrants. Parking tickets and citations for drunken or reckless driving are not covered.
How much is the discount?
Any civil assessments are deducted. Of the remaining balance, the discount will be 80 percent for those who make 125 percent or less than the federal poverty level — $14,712 for an individual, or $30,312 for a family of four — or who receive public assistance. For everyone else, the discount will be 50 percent.
How do I apply?
Contact the Superior Court in the county where the ticket was issued. People who are eligible will have their application processed without seeing a judge.