Courts Launch Amnesty Program for Overdue Traffic Tickets

Under an amnesty program that starts Oct. 1, California drivers struggling to pay off mounting traffic fines will have a chance to settle for a fraction of what they owe.

Gov. Jerry Brown called for the grace period amid growing concerns that traffic courts—which he called “a hellhole of desperation”—trap people in poverty with steep fines for even minor infractions.

Brown’s plan will allow drivers with lesser infractions to pay as little as 20 percent of what they owe and have their driver’s license reinstated. Administrative fees will drop from $300 to $50.

Santa Clara County Superior Court will send out notices about the program next month, according to spokesman Joe Macaluso.

Since 2006, more than 4.8 million people have had their driver’s licenses suspended because they can’t afford to pay court-ordered penalties, according to the Department of Motor Vehicles. Legal aid groups have called this a civil rights issue, noting that it affects predominantly poor and minority residents.

State analysts expect the 18-month amnesty to rake in $150 million in fees that might otherwise have gone uncollected. Unpaid traffic penalties have burgeoned to more than $10 billion.

Earlier this summer, the California Judicial Council, the policymaking body for the state’s courts, issued an emergency ruling to relieve some of that burden. Facing criticism that traffic courts have become a pay-to-play system, the council in June dropped its requirement that people pay fines before they can challenge them.

A pending state bill proposes additional reforms. SB 405 by state Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D-Van Nuys) would base penalties on ability to pay and restore licenses to people with non-safety violations.

The #BlackLivesMatter movement is credited with bringing national attention to not only police use of force against men of color but also inequities in traffic court. A U.S. Department of Justice report found that in Ferguson, Missouri—where a white cop shot and killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown—court fees disproportionately target low-income and African American residents.

A California group called the Lawyers’ Committee on Civil Rights issued its own study, which came to a similar conclusion. It showed that California courts have increasingly relied on fees to raise revenues after years of austerity depleted government coffers—poor and minority drivers bear the brunt of those penalties.

Relatively small infractions now cost hundreds of dollars. And if they’re not paid on time, courts tack on penalties that cost hundreds more and result in license suspension.

Losing a license, of course, makes it harder to get to work to earn money to pay down fines. Getting caught driving on a suspended license could land a person in jail.

This upcoming amnesty isn’t the first time the state has granted relief from traffic fees. A six-month program in 2012 helped resolve 42,000 cases and collect $15 million.

The grace period will run from next month through the end of March 2017. The Judicial Council posted guidelines for local courts here and eligibility requirements for drivers here.

Jennifer Wadsworth is a staff writer for San Jose Inside and Metro Newspaper. Email tips to [email protected] or follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.

8 Comments

  1. “The #BlackLivesMatter riots brought national attention to hapless freeway drivers and innocent danaged businesses, tainted by thug lies and propagated by the sensational for-profit media. A U.S. Department of Justice report found that in Ferguson, Missouri—where unarmed black robber Michael Brown attacked and tried to disarm a white police officer, and was killed in self-defense—court fees are proportional to African American residents, because they are 60% of the population there.”

    Fixed it for you Jen.

  2. Almost. The 2010 census estimate stated in the report puts the black population at 67% – probably higher now. Those at or below the poverty level at 25% (2009-13 report).

    Jen was simply parroting DOJ’s report language that claimed disproportionate treatment without explaining the rationale. In other words, it is disproportionate because we say it is.

    The report is primarily anecdotal. Maybe anecdotes are all that DOJ investigators had available – don’t know. The recommendations are a non-prioritized grab-bag of ideas lacking root-cause linkage, quantifiable outcomes or benchmarks as to what has worked elsewhere.

    The report seems amateurish compared to SCC civil grand jury investigations. And unlike a CGJ report, a response doesn’t seem required by Fergusson officials.

    But CA and SCC seem to have some commonality with Fergusson. Minor infractions have become an important revenue source / profit center for government. Escalating fines exacerbate problems, not mitigate them.

    Instead of simply dismissing fines, why not expand the Weekend Work Program? SJ spent over $300K cleaning up the Jungle. Our parks are blighted.

    Why not use miscreants to work off their debts or learn more productive skills? Example: San Francisco claims their recidivism rate is 50% below SCC after implementing a job training program for confined offenders and those on probation.

  3. Another bleeding heart column from Jenn. There is a simple solution to avoiding high traffic violation fines—OBEY THE LAW!!!

    Gov. Jerry Brown called for the grace period amid growing concerns that traffic courts—which he called “a hellhole of desperation”—trap people in poverty with steep fines for even minor infractions. Dear Gov. Moonbeam: see above.
    “Since 2006, more than 4.8 million people have had their driver’s licenses suspended because they can’t afford to pay court-ordered penalties. Legal aid groups have called this a civil rights issue, noting that it affects predominantly poor and minority residents.” To the 4.8 million who are probably still driving despite having their licenses suspended and to the legal aid groups, same message: OBEY THE LAW!! It is NOT a civil rights issue. Please describe for us the civil right to disobey the law and fail to pay fines assessed as a result of those violations? It is a lack of civic responsibility issue.
    “Earlier this summer, the California Judicial Council, the policymaking body for the state’s courts, issued an emergency ruling to relieve some of that burden. Facing criticism that traffic courts have become a pay-to-play system, the council in June dropped its requirement that people pay fines before they can challenge them.” This I agree with, in part. It’s a presumption of innocence issue. But I would like to see the numbers of people who request a trial without having to pay first and then just don’t show up for trial.
    “A pending state bill proposes additional reforms. SB 405 by state Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D[of course]-Van Nuys) would base penalties on ability to pay…” Complete BS. What’s next, forcing landlords to charge rents based on ability to pay, forcing grocery stores to charge people based on ability to pay, forcing retailers to price all consumer goods based on ability to pay?
    “Losing a license, of course, makes it harder to get to work to earn money to pay down fines.” No it doesn’t. They just drive anyway. “Getting caught driving on a suspended license could land a person in jail.” They only get caught if they have broken the traffic laws again. Unless the suspension was due to a DUI, persons caught driving on a suspended license rarely got jail time in the past. And after prison reform (AB109), anyone sentenced to county jail for driving on a suspended license is released immediately in order to make room for the felons that the state prisons are releasing to county jails.
    Jenn, what a dream world you live in!
    “…in Ferguson, Missouri—where a white cop shot and killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown…” Jenn, you and the rest of the press continue to conveniently forget about the part where 290 pound Michael Brown, who had an extensive criminal record stole goods from a convenience store and intimidated the very much smaller store clerk into letting him go (all caught on video that has been widely distributed, but which you and people like you ignore), then was beating the cr*p out of the police officer who stopped him for walking in the middle of the street, and that Mr. Brown was trying to take the officer’s sidearm. When will the press start telling the WHOLE truth about the now-sainted Michael Brown?

  4. > “…in Ferguson, Missouri—where a white cop shot and killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown…”

    The instant the gentle giant grabbed for the officer’s gun I would consider him to be armed.

    The “unarmed black teenager” part of the left’s narrative is a textbook “big lie.”

    • Ams, that is, human limbs, are recognized in law as a form of physical force armament. Battery, knock-downs, and other physical violence by human arms and fists are illegal, as using any tool, instrument, vehicle, etc. As an example, a few months ago an assailant who used his arms to knock down an innocent pedestrian was properly arrested for such “armed” violence, as Mike Brown and Tryvon Martin exemplified. A different term should be used in such reporting. Btw, Black Crimes Matter, just as All Crimes Matter, as well..

  5. You mean the forensic medical reports along with tape recorded eyewitness statements from young black men (who later recanted after their faces were shown during interviews on tv) that proves the “hands up don’t shoot” was a catchy “title” that CNN and others used as a news cover sheet and not the truth?. The media machine is alive and well and thriving off of the inner ghetto, under educated and the straight up criminal thugs. Its the American way.

  6. Rewarding scofflaws for breaking the law, then not paying the associated penalties, is insane and leaves the good behavior drivers to effectively subsidize their unlawful shenanigans.

  7. No more Alliance One collection agency scam ! They claim to “lose your file” then try to slap you with duplicate fines.. Omg they just got their asses handed to them, no more money for these scum !