East Bay Express: The High Cost of Driving While Poor
Original article in East Bay Express.
by sam levin
Alameda County traps people in poverty with steep fines for minor traffic infractions — in a cruel system that depends on punishing Black and low-income residents and is plagued by hypocrisy and conflicts of interest.
When two men approached Carlos Smith outside his home on September 26, 2008, he knew he was in trouble. It was just after midnight, and Smith was parking his GMC Denali truck by his house on 66th Avenue and Arthur Street in the Havenscourt neighborhood of East Oakland. He had never seen the men before, but they walked up to his vehicle and told him to get out. But before he could exit, they assaulted him, wrestling to get his keys.
“They just started attacking me, and I ended up fighting for my life,” recalled Smith, 45. One of the men pulled out a gun, and they eventually knocked Smith to the ground. At that point, he realized that his hand was covered in blood. One of the men had fired shots at him, striking him in his left shoulder. During a recent interview, Smith — who previously worked in construction, but now is unemployed — showed me the seven-year-old scars on his body from the gunshot wounds.
The men drove off with his truck, and an ambulance rushed Smith to the hospital. According to the Oakland Police Department, the carjacking suspects then abandoned the vehicle near Smith’s home. Smith said he is lucky he got the truck back and grateful to be alive. However, the shooting sent him on a downward spiral — but not for any reason he could have predicted the night of the attack.
One month after the carjacking, during the beginning of Smith’s long physical recovery, an Oakland police officer pulled him over while he was driving near the Coliseum. Smith, who is Black, said he can’t remember the exact reason why the officer stopped him, but recalled that the cop told him something about him not properly displaying a sticker in the rear window. What he does remember — and what court records show — is that he did not have his proper proof of insurance on him, resulting in a citation with an initial fine of more than $700.
Smith had gotten traffic citations before, but this one could not have come at a worse time. He was out of work and was still recovering from the shooting. As a result of his injuries, he missed an initial deadline to show up to Alameda County Superior Court for the traffic violation, leading him to receive a “failure to appear” citation. That infraction carried an additional $300 “civil assessment,” and resulted in the Department of Motor Vehicles suspending his driver’s license.
Smith said he wrote to the court to explain that he had failed to appear because of his medical problems, but said he couldn’t get the fines reduced or waived. He said he wanted to fight his case in front of a judge, but court clerks told him that he had to deal with a private debt collection company that contracts with Alameda County to handle traffic fines.
In 2011, Smith got a ticket for driving with a suspended license, and in 2013, was slapped with an additional infraction after a red-light camera apparently caught him running a red, court records show. With all his fines, civil assessments, and interest fees combined, as of last month, Smith owed more than $3,000. Without a valid driver’s license, he has also been unable to find steady employment — making it impossible to pay off his debts. Smith, who depends on disability benefits and now lives in San Leandro, said he has relied on getting rides from family members and friends and has struggled to move his life forward. “This really put me in a great depression,” he said. “You feel worthless.”
Smith’s plight is far from unique. Statewide data that Bay Area legal aid and civil rights organizations recently compiled and analyzed — along with detailed accounts from people saddled with insurmountable traffic violation debts — demonstrate that municipal courts and aggressive debt collectors in California routinely trap low-income people in poverty with exorbitant fines. Minor traffic offenses that once cost $100 now cost roughly $500, which people living paycheck to paycheck can’t afford.
And when defendants miss a single payment or court date, the fines increase exponentially — and their driver’s licenses are suspended. In those cases, the courts also frequently block defendants from having a trial unless they post full bail, which means innocent people or those with extenuating life circumstances often can’t even present their cases to a judge.
Over the past eight years, there have been 4.2 million cases in which the state suspended driver’s licenses because of people’s failure to appear or pay fines in court, according to the East Bay Community Law Center, a nonprofit that provides legal services to defendants in traffic court. That means an estimated 17 percent of adults in California currently have suspended licenses for missing a hearing or payment deadline.
The injustice of traffic courts — which also rule on a wide range of municipal infractions, such as littering or failing to pay public transit fare — is exacerbated by the fact that judges routinely issue the harshest punishments allowed, far beyond the minimum sentences outlined in state law. In addition, judicial officers routinely fail to take advantage of the wide discretion they have to consider people’s ability to pay fines. And with court and other government budgets heavily dependent on these fines and fees, judges have increasingly felt pressured to raise revenues on the backs of poor people.
In the East Bay, several factors amplify these inequities. In Oakland, data has repeatedly shown that police stop Black residents at disproportionate rates, meaning people of color are more likely to get traffic citations and thus wind up in a court system that preys on low-income residents.
What’s more, in Alameda County, one of two judges who rules on all these cases in Oakland is particularly harsh in both his punishments and his treatment of low-income defendants, according to an Express review of court recordings and transcripts, along with a formal complaint recently filed against the judge by an East Bay attorney. The judge, Commissioner Taylor Culver, regularly mocks and quarrels with defendants in a way that critics say is inappropriate for a commissioner and intimidates the most vulnerable people in his courtroom.
Civil rights activists say the combination of these oppressive forces makes traffic court one of the cruelest legal systems in the East Bay — one that routinely ruins the lives of people who have done nothing wrong.
And for defendants unlucky enough to find themselves in front of Commissioner Culver, they’re also faced with a judge who has no sympathy for their stories or their plight — even though he, himself, has struggled with many of the same types of financial and legal problems stemming from his repeated failure to pay government fines, penalties, and debt.
The inequality of traffic court begins on the streets of Black and poor neighborhoods in the East Bay. In Oakland, Black drivers are significantly more likely to be stopped by police than any other racial group. Recently released Oakland Police Department data showed that, between April 2013 and October 2014, out of roughly 30,000 stops for alleged traffic violations, 53.2 percent were of Black residents — despite the fact that Blacks make up only 27 percent of the city’s population. Meanwhile, white residents, who make up 26 percent of Oakland’s population, accounted for just 14.9 percent of traffic stops.
Experts agree that this kind of alarming disparity is not a reflection of the inferior driving skills of Black residents, but is rather the result of racially biased policing. For example, the OPD data showed that out of 3,479 stops in which cops cited “reasonable suspicion” — a vague legal standard that allows officers to pull over motorists with little justification — 73.1 percent of those stopped were Black, while only 7.7 percent were white. Latino residents were also stopped at higher rates than white residents, but less frequently than Black motorists, the OPD data showed.
Beyond the potential racial biases of individual officers, police departments tend to spend more time patrolling low-income and Black neighborhoods, which increases the likelihood of people in those areas being stopped. And because poor drivers and people of color have more of these interactions with the police, they are more likely to get caught for relatively minor administrative offenses — such as lacking proof of insurance. Low-income drivers are also more likely to have older vehicles with maintenance problems that can justify a police stop and lead to a costly citation.
Across the board, data shows that many traffic violations involve relatively inconsequential errors that pose little to no threat to public safety. It could be a broken headlight, an obstructed windshield, failing to display a carrier identification number, or an incorrectly worn seatbelt. Often, “It’s a ticket for driving while poor,” said Anna Kirsch, staff attorney with East Bay Community Law Center, which co-authored a damning report on traffic court released last month called “Not Just a Ferguson Problem: How Traffic Courts Drive Inequality in California.”
According to data that Alameda County Superior Court provided to the Express, out of 286,895 total traffic court violations in the county in 2014, the most common offenses were red-light violations (12.4 percent); speeding above 65 miles per hour (9.5 percent); lacking proof of registration (8.5 percent) or proof of insurance (6.6 percent); driving without a license (5.5 percent); and improperly using a cellphone while driving (5.3 percent).
But the data also shows that thousands of people were cited for seemingly insignificant violations, such as failure to notify the DMV of an address change within ten days (2,604 people); unlawful material on the windows (3,507); missing a license plate lamp (907); and using an audible sound system outside of a vehicle (306).
Traffic court is also the venue in which judges review a wide range of infractions that have nothing to do with driving, and that, advocates argue, primarily impact low-income people, minorities, and the homeless. Last year, in Alameda County, 4.7 percent of the total citations heard in traffic court were for non-traffic offenses, including failing to pay public transit fare (2,449 violations); drinking in public (1,789); jaywalking (397); smoking in a no-smoking area (354); disturbing the peace (85); and biking on the sidewalk (84). “The homeless get harassed disproportionately for smoking cigarettes, having open containers, and doing the things we do in our homes that they cannot,” said Mari Castaldi, program coordinator with the East Bay Community Law Center’s General Legal Clinic, which assists homeless clients with traffic citations.
Inequities also continue and intensify inside the courtroom. Fines that pose an inconvenience for middle-income or wealthy residents can create a life-altering burden for low-wage workers, the unemployed, welfare recipients, or others facing personal hardships. This has long been the case, but the barriers in traffic court have grown in recent years as state lawmakers have continued to dramatically raise the costs associated with citations.
The so-called “base fines” — meaning the initial costs specific to certain offenses — have remained consistent for twenty years, such as $25 for faulty equipment or $100 for speeding in excess of 25 miles per hour. But lawmakers have continued to implement new “penalty assessments,” which are fines added to a citation to raise revenues for county and state programs.
These add-on fees have steadily climbed, with lawmakers hiking assessments in an effort to help address massive budget shortfalls. At the same time, court budgets in the state have dramatically declined — dropping by more than $1 billion in recent years, resulting in hundreds of courtroom closures, according to the “Not Just a Ferguson Problem” report, which outlined the outrageous costs of a single ticket.
Today, a $25 base fine actually costs a defendant a total of $197 with various assessments; a $100 fine costs $490; a $250 fine costs $1,105; and a $500 fine costs $2,130. That means drivers may have to pay nearly $200 for minor maintenance issues (such as a windshield problem) and nearly $500 for certain moving violations (like speeding). Non-driving violations can be equally costly, with a jaywalking fine totaling $197, and littering offenses costing nearly $500.
“We’ve just become a court system that is so dependent on fines and fees,” said Judge Marsha Slough, presiding judge of San Bernardino County Superior Court and a member of the Judicial Council, the policymaking body of California courts. “The truth is it does impact the most vulnerable people in our state.”
Across California, people routinely struggle to pay off these massive fines. A recent government analysis found that the state currently has a total of $10.2 billion in uncollected court-ordered debts, which includes fines from traffic infractions and other criminal offenses.
Berkeley resident Donna Turner, 52, has hundreds of dollars in traffic fine debts, including for multiple citations that she said were incorrectly issued after she sold her car and the new owner committed violations. Paying her fines is simply not an option, she said. “It’s a very big burden that is cutting into a whole lot of my necessities,” said Turner, who is on disability and lives alone. “That’s my food and my bills, the basics.”
In California, the main tool that the courts use to compel people to pay their fines is the threat of a driver’s license suspension. While critics and court officials agree that this is a better option than incarcerating someone who owes money, civil rights activists argue that a revoked license is an unfair punishment that only makes it harder for people to resolve outstanding debts.
For people who depend on their cars to get to medical appointments, take their children to school, get to work or a job interview, or buy groceries, this system leaves them with an impossible choice: neglect your everyday obligations — or break the law and drive.
Robert Coney’s life is in his van. The 52-year-old has been homeless for about two years and currently stays at shelters throughout the East Bay, or friends’ houses, or otherwise sleeps in his 1990 Chevrolet G20. Many of his belongings are in the van, but he’s not legally allowed to drive it.
During a recent interview inside the Berkeley offices of the East Bay Community Law Center, Coney pulled out a thick packet of documents covering years of his disputes in Alameda County traffic court. A carpenter by trade who has been unable to find work, Coney said that his struggle to resolve his traffic fines and pay off his ballooning debts has weighed on him since 2012. His paperwork provides an in-depth look at how easy it can be to lose your license — and how hard it can be to get it back.
His troubles began with a February 2012 red-light violation — Coney said a red-light camera caught him failing to fully stop when turning right on red in the Fruitvale district. He subsequently missed a deadline to appear in court, and in December of that year ended up getting another red-light camera ticket for the same reason. In March 2013, he showed up to court to resolve both tickets and learned that he owed roughly $1,000 total, which included the two tickets plus a $300 civil assessment for failing to appear. “I told the judge, ‘I have no money, and I’m homeless,'” he said.
Over the next several months, Coney’s records show that he completed roughly seventy hours of community service to work off his debts — enough hours to pay off all of his fines, except for the $300 civil assessment. Coney said he turned in the proof of his community service work just before the court deadline, but that due to some kind of clerical error, officials said he was late in completing his service. As a result, the court lodged two additional $300 civil assessments against him for “failure to pay.”
“I was so angry. I was like, ‘I’m going to sue them for doing that to me!'” he recalled. “I just made a right turn at a red light!” In interview, Coney got visibly worked up and took a deep breath to calm himself down. “I just felt unbalanced. I couldn’t move on as a productive person in society.”
The court sent his cases to the debt collection company AllianceOne, and the DMV subsequently suspended his license. Then in May 2014, he got another ticket — for driving with a suspended license, according to court records. By August, AllianceOne said he owed more than $1,660 in Alameda County.
While the high fines make traffic court a fundamentally challenging system for low-income people, it’s the license suspensions and harsh consequences for failures to appear or pay that make the system truly inequitable, advocates say. Critics argue that these stiff punishments have turned the court into a two-tiered system, in which poor people are effectively denied due process because of their personal financial challenges.
Coney’s difficulties point to a few common disparities in traffic court, advocates said, especially considering how hard he worked to do the right thing. Defendants found guilty in traffic court — whether by initially pleading guilty (or “no contest”) at an arraignment or if a judge rules against them at trial — have a few options to pay off their fines. They can pay it all at once or they can set specific “payment plans,” which allow for monthly installments.
A defendant can also choose community service, in which one hour’s of work is worth $10 (a rate lower than the minimum wage in Oakland) toward paying off his or her fine. Advocates, however, say judges and commissioners often neglect to inform defendants about this option at trial. And people simply don’t have the time to do the extensive amount of community service that an expensive ticket requires.
If a defendant misses a community service deadline or a single monthly installment of a payment plan, the court automatically issues the $300 civil assessment for “failure to pay” and places a hold on the individual’s driver’s license, a move which prompts the DMV to subsequently suspend the license.
When defendants with $300 civil assessments attempt to resolve the matter, court clerks tell them they have to contact AllianceOne, the debt collection company, to establish new payment plans. At that point, even if they start making monthly payments on time, they can’t get their licenses reinstated until they have paid off all their debts. For an individual who can only afford to pay $25 a month, that can take years.
People with suspended licenses in these cases can’t even get a “restricted license,” which would allow them to drive to and from work. That’s despite the fact that the law does allow such accommodations for people convicted of driving under the influence. (“There’s always an exception if it’s a crime that rich white people commit,” said Kirsch, from East Bay Community Law Center).
There are several ways in which Alameda County, like courts across the state, makes this process significantly more burdensome and punitive than state statute requires. For starters, under state law, civil assessments for failure to appear or pay can be “up to $300” — but in Alameda County every assessment is automatically $300. That’s despite the fact that the statute also requires traffic courts to consider, upon a defendant’s request, his or her ability to pay.
Leah Wilson, court executive officer for Alameda County Superior Court, told me that traffic commissioners have the discretion to reduce the base fine amount to $1. Advocates, however, said this rarely happens, and, regardless, the hefty add-on surcharges and penalties remain in place.
California law also gives the courts broad discretion to dismiss civil assessments for any defendant who “shows good cause for the failure to appear or for the failure to pay.” But in Alameda County, the courts generally only dismiss the $300 fees for a few narrow reasons — hospitalization, out-of-state military duty, incarceration, or if you were not the person cited. Wilson said the court will consider other extenuating circumstances beyond those listed.
But advocates told me that clients with valid excuses are routinely rejected and often struggle to get the fee dismissed without the help of an attorney. Kirsch said one recent client who had been diligently making payments on a fine, missed one deadline after he was hospitalized, and the court rejected his request to have the $300 civil assessment dismissed. However, after Kirsch wrote a more persuasive and formal letter, the courts complied and dropped the assessment. “It’s hard for people to do this on their own,” she said.
In 2014, out of more than 10,000 civil assessment dismissal requests in Alameda County, the courts approved 41 percent and rejected 55 percent, according to data that Wilson provided (the remaining ones have had no ruling yet). Regardless, the data shows that the initial assessments affect a huge number of people each year. Last year, 16,312 people arraigned for traffic charges had previously failed to appear on time, according to Wilson. Alameda County also issued 31,683 civil assessments for failure to pay in 2014, though that total does not account for assessments that the courts later dismissed.
As is the case across the state, defendants in Alameda County often can’t pay off these assessments. According to data that Castaldi acquired, from January 2012 through November 2014, Alameda County imposed 260,000 in total civil assessments — during which time only 160,000 were paid (60.6 percent). In addition, the assessments totaled $78.3 million in fines, but the amount paid was only $26.8 million, or 34.2 percent.
During that timeframe, the courts also placed 380,000 holds on driver’s licenses — for failure to appear or pay, or failure to comply with a court order, a similar charge — but only lifted 87,000 of those holds, or 22.7 percent. This data, advocates said, shows that the cost of these assessments is simply too high for many defendants, and, as a result, they can easily lose their driving privileges for months or years.
Alameda County, along with courts across the state, also refuses to let people do community service to pay off $300 civil assessments — it’s one of the reasons why Coney has had such a difficult time trying to resolve his fines. Wilson said the court doesn’t have the authority to allow volunteer work to count towards these types of failure to appear fines, but advocates pointed out that there is nothing in statute that bans this practice.
Huge financial penalties and license suspensions are not the only consequences of civil assessments. Once an assessment is issued, courts routinely require defendants to post the full bail before granting a trial date. That means a defendant who is innocent, but missed one court deadline, can’t make a case in front of a judge unless he or she can pay all the fines and fees upfront. For someone with a $100 base fine, that would be more than $800.
“It’s just so inflexible,” said Meredith Desautels, a staff attorney with the San Francisco-based Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, a nonprofit that co-authored the recent traffic report. She cited a case in which a defendant accused of a traffic violation was a clear victim of identity theft, but failed to appear in court and then was barred from getting a trial. “He just wants to explain his case to a judge. We have no doubt he’s going to get the ticket canceled. … But he can’t post the money for an offense he didn’t commit.”
Even worse, if a defendant manages to get a trial and prove his or her innocence, the $300 civil assessment fine remains — since that penalty is associated with a failure-to-appear charge and not the original traffic violation. In other words, people who successfully prove that they were wrongly accused of breaking the law can still be saddled with significant debts.
In Alameda County, chance can also impact people’s fates. According to lawyers familiar with the ins and outs of Wiley Manuel Courthouse in downtown Oakland, the uphill battle of traffic court can be significantly harder for people who end up in Department 102. That’s the domain of Commissioner Taylor Culver.
Sometimes, Commissioner Culver makes people in his courtroom laugh. Other times, he makes them cry. Culver is one of two traffic commissioners in Wiley Manuel Courthouse, which handles all traffic cases for northern Alameda County (there are two additional traffic commissioners based in Fremont). In Department 102 on the first floor of the courthouse, Culver spends his mornings overseeing arraignments (when defendants plead guilty or innocent) and afternoons presiding over trials in which police officers and defendants argue about the merits of a citation.
Culver, who has been a commissioner since 2005, routinely makes long-winded speeches about how he operates his courtroom. He can be goofy at times, but if you’re the butt of his jokes, it’s not that funny. I first heard about Culver when a Lafayette-based lawyer, Sherman Kassof, sent the Express a formal complaint that he had filed against Culver, along with extensive Department 102 recordings he acquired through a public records request. Kassof — who specializes in antitrust laws unrelated to traffic court — ended up repeatedly observing Culver’s courtroom last year after his own traffic dispute brought him to Wiley Manuel.
“I was really shocked by the conduct I saw,” Kassof said in an interview. He ultimately wrote letters to Alameda County’s presiding judge and a supervising judge last fall arguing that Culver’s behavior was consistently unethical and inappropriate — in large part because of the way that he sides with police officers in trials and chastises and belittles defendants. Kassof alleged that Culver’s behavior consistently violates the California Code of Judicial Ethics, which states that a “judge shall be patient, dignified, and courteous to litigants.”
Over the past month, I also observed Culver’s courtroom on multiple occasions. His actions were somewhat unpredictable, but he is often sarcastic and irritable and displays little patience for people confused by the process or for those who ask for leniency because of personal hardships. Culver regularly makes clear that he has no sympathy for anyone’s personal problems. For example, according to a recording that Kassof obtained, the commissioner said in court one day last August that “many people, they spend time at home thinking about what they’re going to tell the judge to reduce their ticket. That’s not happening. … Nobody’s special enough to get some kind of break. … The only person in here special is me.”
He continued: “So whatever drama you wanted to bring, keep it. … We don’t waste a lot of time, ‘I got babies, this, my husband left me, this that, this that.’ That ain’t got nothing to do with the ticket. And that’s all we deal with here — tickets. It’s about the money, and that’s it.”
In that speech, Culver, who is Black, also included an apparent reference to the Civil War: “It may be because of my age and my race, that people died to make sure the law applied to them the same as everybody else. We’re not going to offend those deaths acting like somebody ought to be treated differently than everybody else. We had two hundred years of that and we’re not going to have another minute of it in here.”
When people ask for mercy, he often audibly sighs, saying things like, “It’s one of those days!” or “Here we go!”
While it may not be all that surprising that a traffic commissioner is unfriendly or harsh, Culver’s demeanor and treatment of defendants can have tangible consequences. And an unnecessarily tough judge can be especially problematic in traffic court, where, unlike criminal court, defendants do not have a right to a public defender. That means the vast majority of people — aside from those fortunate enough to connect to organizations like the East Bay Community Law Center — are representing themselves. Twice when I went to Department 102 with Kirsch, she was the only defense attorney in the courtroom.
Culver’s stridently unsympathetic style is also particularly alarming given that, in his own life, he has repeatedly been guilty of some of the same types of legal violations for which he regularly berates people in his court. According to public records, Culver has consistently failed to pay his state and federal taxes on time and has been fined for failing to pay penalties and interest related to his unpaid tax obligations. Alameda County Recorder’s Office records also reveal that some of these legal infractions occurred while he’s been a traffic commissioner. It was not until 2008 and 2009 that Culver paid off two longstanding federal tax liens and two state liens filed against him in association with his previous work as a private attorney through the Culver Law Firm at 1300 Clay Street in Oakland. Those liens, originally filed between 1994 and 2004, totaled more than $25,000 in taxes, penalties, and interest.
The records also show that the IRS lodged a federal tax lien against Culver in 2007 (associated with a different address) for a total of $70,275, including penalties and interest. He did not pay off that debt until March 2014. In total, the documents show that since the 1980s, the government has filed more than forty state and federal tax liens and lien extensions against Culver, which combined were worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. The records suggest that he has paid off most of his debts — often years late — although it’s not entirely clear whether he currently has any unresolved liens.
Culver declined my initial request for an interview and after I sent him detailed questions about his tax liens and Kassof’s complaint, he wrote back: “I will not be responding further to any of your requests. Please do not email me in the future.”
Ethical questions aside, it’s difficult to know whether the outcomes in Culver’s courtroom are substantially different than those of other traffic commissioners in the county or state. Wilson, court executive officer, said the county was unable to provide trial data for each commissioner. Still, the style of the other Wiley Manuel traffic judge, Commissioner Elizabeth Hendrickson, is significantly less abrasive, and Kassof argued that the intimidating speeches that Culver makes often interfere with a defendant’s right to a fair trial.
“If you’re free to insult someone and engage in the conduct I saw … it’s not only unpleasant … it discourages people from in any way challenging or going forward with their case,” Kassof said. “It is simply a big highway sign that says, ‘The system is rigged.'”
According to the recordings that Kassof acquired and my own visits to Department 102, Culver routinely ridicules low-income defendants, while affording police officers a significant amount of respect. In a trial last September, Culver sarcastically told a man on trial for speeding on the Bay Bridge, “You get up to one hundred questions to ask him,” referring to the testifying officer from the California Highway Patrol. As the defendant asked questions, Culver continued counting down in a mocking tone: “You’ve got 98 more questions!”
The defendant, who is Black, later asked if the officer had video of him speeding. The officer replied that he had it with him in the courtroom, but Culver denied the defendant’s request to play it. “That’s all part of being your own lawyer,” the commissioner said, later chastising the defendant by saying, “You’re just making stuff up as we go along.” Culver issued a guilty verdict: $1,166 total.
That same day, an older Korean man, speaking through an interpreter, tried to contest a citation he received from a Berkeley Police Department officer for wearing his seatbelt incorrectly — under his armpit. The soft-spoken man repeatedly said he did not understand why he had to receive a ticket for something so minor, saying, “Perhaps the officer could have given me a warning?”
After the man said he did not realize that this was the law, Culver responded: “It is, and I’m familiar with it. You are found guilty. You must pay $172. How do you want to pay the money?”
The man responded: “I’m a senior. I do not have much money.”
Culver whined: “Here we go!”
When the man asked for a payment plan with monthly installments, Culver replied: “No. It’s too small.” He ultimately gave the man only two months to pay the full amount.
In another case later that month, in response to a defendant asking whether he should sit or stand when giving his testimony, Culver replied: “Whatever you want — you can lie down!”
Later, Culver scolded the man for arguing that the Berkeley cop (who accused him of rolling through a stop sign) could not have seen him from her position, saying, “I can’t believe the officer did not see what she testified to. … It’s just ridiculous.”
When that defendant argued that his slow speed through the intersection indicated that he had, in fact, stopped, Culver raised his voice: “I don’t know why you have suffering wonderment. That’s exactly how people go through the stop sign. … What jackass would go through a stop sign at full speed? That’s enough — it’s $238, what do you want to do about the money?”
In one case, when a driver contested the driving speed supposedly caught by a type of radar speed gun known as a “lidar,” Culver responded, sarcastically: “I understand. So the lidar is wrong. … We’re gonna throw that lidar unit out as soon as this trial is over.”
On another day, he told a woman who brought photos as evidence of confusing signage that her images were “some junk,” interrupting her and saying, “No, no, uh uh, we’re not going to go down that trail of thinking I’m stupid.”
One particularly tense case I witnessed in Culver’s courtroom involved a woman who was accused of driving in the carpool lane when she was by herself. She tried to explain that she had very briefly swerved into the lane to avoid a reckless driver that nearly collided with her. Culver quickly got fed up: “What would be the reason that this officer would lie?” After he issued a guilty verdict with a $705 fine, the woman said she could only pay $5 a month because she is unemployed — a remark that clearly angered Culver.
“You’re going to pay what’s ordered!” he bellowed, adding, “My patience is wearing thin, and I tell you it wouldn’t be a good thing if it were to wear out. This attitude thing, you keep it or get out of here. … Enough is enough.”
The woman stormed out of the courtroom, muttering that the only crime she committed was “driving while Black.”
Carlos Smith, the San Leandro man who missed a court appearance due to a carjacking, has appeared before Culver and described him this way: “What he tries to do is cut down on the nonsense and excuses … but he doesn’t allow you to tell your story. Basically, he wants his money.”
In Culver’s courtroom and throughout Alameda County, data shows that for many defendants, there’s really only one way to leave traffic court without a massive fine: when the citing officer fails to show up to the trial, the case is automatically dismissed. This happens often. The first time I showed up to trials in Department 102, not a single cop appeared and Culver dismissed every case. Last year, out of 27,000 trials, cops failed to appear in 55 percent of cases, according to data that Wilson provided. Cases are also dismissed when there is insufficient evidence, Wilson said, noting that a total of 63 percent of 2014 traffic trials resulted in dismissal.
A majority of traffic court defendants, however, don’t even make it to trial. Out of 66,000 people arraigned in traffic court last year, 68 percent pleaded guilty or no contest, meaning they did not attempt to fight the charges and agreed from the start of the court process to just pay the fines.
For those who go to trial and find the cop that cited them in the courtroom, the odds are very slim that a judge will rule against the officer. Across Alameda County last year, traffic commissioners ruled that defendants were not guilty in only 7.5 percent of trials in which police officers testified.
Civil rights advocates said an important first step in slowing down the fast lane to debt for low-income defendants would be for court commissioners to take advantage of the wide discretion that the law allows to issue less harsh punishments. But ultimately, they argued, fundamental policy changes are necessary to create a more equitable and effective system. Systemic change is critical in large part because the current judicial funding model is so deeply flawed — something judges have increasingly recognized over the years.
Because the court system at many levels, including traffic court, depends so heavily on fines and fees associated with convictions, there is an inherent conflict of interest for judges. “We’re supposed to be neutral parties, but then we impose a fine and fee which supports government,” said Yolo County Superior Court Judge Dave Rosenberg, who is also a member of the Judicial Council. “It puts judges in an awkward position.”
Slough, the San Bernardino County judge, said that she hopes judges don’t let budget pressures influence their individual sentencing decisions and the fines they order. But the reality, she said, is that “everyone, from the ground level up, is mindful that jobs are being lost, courts are being closed, people are being laid off, staff and court hours are shortened.” What’s more, other public agencies (such as county hospitals) that directly lose funding when court revenue from fines and fees drop sometimes actively pressure courts to keep the money flowing, she said. “There’s a real tension there.”
Slough said she could envision a restructuring in which these kinds of fines and fees are removed from the judicial branch entirely and instead ordered and collected through an administrative process. More broadly, however, important government programs should not be so dependent on the penalties ordered against low-income people in traffic court, she argued.
In their recent report on the inequities of traffic court, the East Bay Community Law Center and other legal aid groups argued that the civil assessment penalties should go to the state’s general fund instead of to the courts, so that judges would not be incentivized to issue the maximum $300 and ignore a defendant’s inability to pay.
More broadly, the groups also called for a state-mandated payment plan formula that would require courts and counties to set fines based on people’s financial situation. For example, payments shouldn’t exceed 10 percent of an individual’s income if his or her income is less than the federal poverty level. The report also recommended a clear process that would allow people to request payment plan adjustments based on a change in financial circumstances — such as an unexpected job loss or medical problem.
In general, low-income people should be able to request waivers for fines owed based on proof of indigence, the advocates argued. They further recommended that all of the existing add-on penalty assessments — the fees that turn a $100 citation into a $500 fine — be reduced by 50 percent.
Perhaps most crucially, advocates argued that ending the use of license suspensions as a collection tool for traffic court debt could go a long way toward preventing people from falling into a cycle of poverty over minor infractions. The courts should instead rely on existing tools and penalties available for civil debt collection under state law, they said. That would mean that license suspensions would only be used when the driver’s violation reflects some kind of public safety risk.
Past legislative efforts to improve traffic court have failed. In 2013, Senate Bill 366 would have established stronger requirements to consider people’s ability to pay traffic fines, but the Judicial Council argued it didn’t have the resources to implement the reforms and couldn’t afford to lose revenues. Last year, Assembly Bill 2724, which would have made it easier for defendants to get their driver’s licenses reinstated, also failed after court officials argued it was not feasible and too expensive.
Senator Robert Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, this year introduced legislation that would also create a path for people to restore their licenses as part of an amnesty program.
The opposition to these kinds of efforts often overlooks the very real costs to taxpayers that arise when fines trap people in debt and take away their driving privileges, activists note. For starters, the government might collect more of the money owed if the system were more reasonable and did not take away people’s licenses, which can be critical to sustaining employment.
Castaldi said she often meets clients who end up relying on public benefits because they lost their jobs after losing their licenses. “In trying to fund the government, the government is the cause of the poverty,” she said.
Kirsch added: “The whole idea that everything we do in social services is framed around getting people back to work — this is just so counterintuitive.”
When I met with Wilson, Alameda County court executive officer, she had a copy of the “Not Just a Ferguson Problem” on her desk with notes scribbled throughout. She told me that she thought some aspects of the report were misleading and that the tragic stories it featured of people’s lives ruined by citations were the exception, not the norm.
And Nancy Adams, a division chief for the courts, told me, “We understand how frustrating it is,” but added that she thought the courts gave defendants ample time and opportunities to resolve their fines — and had many avenues to accommodate low-income people. “We live in a very diverse county. We understand that.”
Wilson said the court has been working to make traffic court fairer and easier to navigate — creating a system in which people can automatically pay tickets or sign up for installment plans online, and establishing a traffic court call center staffed by knowledgeable clerks, for example. “We’ve been really looking at how we can improve the process,” she said, noting that the court will soon take over some of the debt collection responsibilities that AllianceOne currently handles in an effort to streamline the process.
And though there are some reforms that she said she would support, including allowing people to get their licenses back while they are making payments, she argued that license suspensions are a critical tool to enforce the law.
“People want to take care of their license issue, so they’re motivated to figure out how to pay,” she said. “I do think it’s really important that there’s a consequence for failing to take care of a traffic infraction.”
Carlos Smith is working to get his life back together. He’s currently studying construction management at Laney College in Oakland and hopes to find work again soon. And three weeks ago, he finally got some good news about the massive traffic fine debts that have been holding him back for years: The courts were dismissing all of his outstanding charges and fines.
That’s because the East Bay Community Law Center helped him get his case in front of an Alameda County judge who presides over a program known as the Homeless and Caring Court. That program, which is a partnership between the courts and the nonprofit St. Vincent de Paul of Alameda County, helps homeless people get nonviolent infractions — including traffic tickets — dismissed. If they can prove that they are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless, and if they can show that they are making personal progress in their lives, Judge Gordon Baranco will listen to their story in a formal proceeding and then drop their violations.
“It’s already helped me,” Smith said after Baranco dismissed his charges in Homeless and Caring Court last month. “I’m just feeling like a normal person again. It just makes me feel like a citizen again, being able to honestly drive.” Smith, who got his driver’s license reinstated last week, said he feels more motivated then he has in a long time to find employment. “It makes you feel eager and it makes you hungry to search.”
It was also the first time that he felt like anyone in the court system actually considered his difficult life circumstances. “They cared enough to real feel your pain … instead of looking at you as a bill.” The tone at Homeless and Caring Court, which takes place at St. Vincent de Paul and the Berkeley Food and Housing Project, is the opposite of Culver’s Department 102 at Wiley Manuel. Baranco, who is also Black, praises the defendants for making progress and the crowd applauds at the end of each case.
It’s a program that recognizes the hardships facing the most vulnerable people in the East Bay, and one in which officials display the kind of compassion and sympathy that advocates have long wished to see in traffic court. But Homeless and Caring Court happens only once every two months, resolving only a few hundred cases a year — a small fraction of low-income people weighed down by traffic fines. And according to representatives of St. Vincent de Paul, resources are limited and many of the clients they refer to the program have to wait a full year to get a hearing.
During that wait, many of those people fall further into poverty as their debts grow. And they can’t legally drive to work.