Drivers with unpaid-ticket license suspensions may get a break

Original article appeared in SF Gate.

The new state budget that the Legislature approved Friday offers a break to some of the millions of Californians whose driver’s licenses have been suspended for failing to pay traffic tickets — a chance to get their licenses back by signing up for a cut-rate repayment program, with further discounts for the poor.
The action follows a report in April by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco that said 4.2 million Californians had their licenses suspended between 2006 and 2013 for failing to pay traffic fines and court-added fees.
“These added-on fees have led to outrageous fines that working people simply can’t afford,” said Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, whose SB405 was the basis of the budget language. “Most of the fines are never paid, which is why there’s $10 billion in unpaid fees.”
The 2015-16 budget, negotiated by Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative Democrats, incorporates the main features of Hertzberg’s driver’s license amnesty legislation that the state Senate passed June 2. It covers only drivers whose licenses were suspended on or before Jan. 1, 2013, but could be expanded by future legislation to apply to more drivers.
The new law reduces the fines drivers owe by 50 percent, or by 80 percent for those who are on welfare or make less than 125 percent of the federal poverty level — $14,712 for an individual, or $30,312 for a family of four.
Drivers can regain their licenses by enrolling in the program, which takes effect Oct. 1 and lasts through March 31, 2017. The law requires the state Judicial Council to establish affordable payment plans based on a driver’s ability to pay. Those who fall behind in their payments would have their wages garnished for the money, rather than having their licenses suspended again.
Ray Sotero, a spokesman for Hertzberg, said the senator is considering proposals that would expand the amnesty program to drivers whose licenses have been suspended since the start of 2013.
Traffic ticket surcharges, which fund cash-strapped courts and other state programs, add $490 to the standard $100 fine for a minor violation, like a broken taillight. Penalties are tacked on when drivers miss payment deadlines. The Lawyers’ Committee report said poor people have been the hardest hit, often losing their jobs as well as their licenses for inability to pay a fine.
The report also said courts in some counties have required drivers who want to challenge their tickets to pay the entire fine and surcharge before being allowed to appear in court.
The Judicial Council, headed by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, ordered counties last week to end that practice, with a few exceptions. A traffic court can still require advance payment if a driver does not sign a written promise to appear in court, or if the judge finds, based on specific evidence, that the driver is unlikely to appear unless required to pay in advance.