A turn toward fair traffic-ticket fines

Original article can be found in Los Angeles Daily News.

Written by the los angeles times Editorial board

Is everyone who fails to pay a traffic ticket a scofflaw deserving of extra punishment?
That’s the good question being raised on several fronts, including a bill by state Sen. Bob Hertzberg and a lawsuit contending that thousands of people are having driver’s licenses suspended unfairly by the Los Angeles Superior Court and the Department of Motor Vehicles.
The California vehicle code says your driver’s license can be suspended if you willfully fail to pay a traffic fine or appear in court to contest it. The key word there is willfully. Meaning voluntarily, intentionally.
But the civil-rights lawyers who filed the suit against L.A. Superior Court last week say the fact is more than a few of the people whose driver’s licenses are suspended fail to pay fines not willfully but because they’re too poor to afford them.
They make a serious point.
In 2006-15, 4.7 million Californians had licenses suspended for failing to pay tickets. According to a report, disproportionate numbers of those suspensions came from what the Los Angeles Times, in a story about the report, called “poor neighborhoods with large percentages of black and Latino residents.” The study came from the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area.
This matters.
It underscores how traffic fines have grown, and how the threat of license suspensions has crowded out other ways to collect. Because of surcharges added by the state to raise revenue during the Great Recession, a $100 traffic fine can grow to nearly $500 — and fees and fines for late payment can raise it to more than $800.
And it highlights how license suspensions perpetuate cycles of poverty.
SB 881, by Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, and passed by the state Senate, would stop automatic suspensions of licenses for failing to pay fines for minor offenses. Hertzberg applauded the lawsuit against the Superior Court, saying: “We know that suspending driver’s licenses for people who are struggling to make ends meet can have huge negative consequences, including costing them their jobs. It’s imperative that courts take into account the severity of this action. Driver’s licenses should be suspended only when merited and not for minor missteps, such as failing to pay a traffic fine on time.”
With action in the Legislature and court, perhaps a solution is on the way.