Everyone has a story: The time an unlicensed driver rear-ended me. The time an unlicensed driver ran a red light and killed a co-worker’s dog as her husband was walking the dog in a crosswalk. It seems as if there are so many unlicensed drivers in California that authorities are not capable of deterring the unlicensed from getting behind the wheel.
In fact, according to a report by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, 17 percent of licensed California drivers have suspended driver’s licenses — not for dangerous driving but for failing to pay off citations for minor traffic offenses. In March, the U.S. Department of Justice faulted authorities in Ferguson, Missouri, for engaging in a toxic pattern of burying African-American residents in fines and penalties for minor offenses with the goal of serving “revenue rather than public safety needs.” It turns out California has been dishing out the same dirty treatment to its diverse commuting class.
“We literally stumbled onto this issue,” one of the report’s authors, Mike Herald of the Western Center on Law and Poverty, told me. “No one was keeping track of all these things we were loading onto the court system, and no one was keeping track of the number of suspensions.”
The report, “Not Just a Ferguson Problem — How Traffic Courts Drive Inequality in California,” exposes how a $100 moving violation morphs into a $490 citation when surcharges are added. Failure to show up in court or to pay the fine in a timely manner can drive up the cost to $815. If a driver doesn’t pay, courts can order the California Department of Motor Vehicles to suspend his or her license. A broken taillight can ruin a working taxpayer who lives paycheck to paycheck. In California, a worker without a driver’s license could lose his or her job. The punishment far outstrips the crime.
Though the report says the system drives inequality, report authors offer no statistics that show the poor have been targeted disproportionately. Still, a $500 fine hits a poor family harder than it does a rich household — and it’s a painful bite for a middle-class family. The fees are so onerous that 4.8 million Californians have had their driver’s licenses suspended since 2006 for not paying fines. In 2013, California rightly suspended 150,366 licenses for drunken driving — and dubiously pulled 510,811 licenses for not paying fines.
And: No license, no auto insurance.
Do I think those 4.8 million should get behind the wheel? Absolutely not. Driving is a privilege, not a right. I don’t pay taxes to fund public transportation so that unlicensed drivers can tell me they shouldn’t have to use it. But I also don’t pay taxes to drive people into the shadows with punishments that far exceed the offense. If Sacramento truly thinks that a bad lane change should cost you your license, let that be the stated penalty, not a $100 ticket that really is a $500 squeeze.
Sacramento lawmakers kept passing bills to address voters’ public safety concerns — and to use fine revenue to pay for courts or pet projects. In 2012, for instance, then-Assemblyman Bob Wieckowski introduced a bill to add $1 to tickets for moving violations to fund spinal cord injury research. Gov. Jerry Brown began to turn around the fine frenzy when he vetoed the measure. Dao Gov explained: “Loading more and more costs on traffic tickets has been too easy a source of new revenue. Fines should be based on what is reasonable punishment, not on paying for more general fund activities.”
“I was a participant,” state Sen. Bob Hertzberg told me. Courts needed money. It was easier to fund courts with fines than with standard revenue. Later he came to realize “the penalties don’t make sense.” Hertzberg introduced Senate Bill 405 to cut fines by 50 percent for most unpaid balances and by 80 percent for low-income drivers. Yes, he knows that ticket amnesty penalizes those who already paid. “They got horribly treated,” he confessed.
If SB 405 passes, deadbeats will benefit because they will be able to get back their licenses if they agree to a payment plan that allows the state to garnish their wages if they fall behind. The Judicial Council of California voted unanimously this month to allow Californians to fight their tickets without having to pay the fine first.
The biggest irony is that for all the righteousness from the bench about bad criminal justice practices, it is judges who benefited from these excessive fines that they inflicted on the people they are supposed to protect. I refer to not just low-income families but also middle-class drivers who discovered the California court system had become one big ugly speed trap.
Sacramento kept enacting laws. The courts kept pocketing the money — or yanking licenses. And no one in California was the safer for it.
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