Citation Debt: What’s really needed is a new approach.

Posted on May 26, 2015


Over the past twenty years we’ve transformed a system of infraction based fines into a cycle of poverty. As it is now, it used to be that you had to pay the 35 dollar fine before you could contest your citation. Then the legislature started tacking on penalty assessments to fund every social cause near and dear to legislators hearts. While it used to require a $100.00 pre-payment to contest a traffic citation, some voodoo economics came into play that required defendants to not only come up with the fine but the penalty assessments. This brought the amount being required to be pre-paid to the courts from a hundred dollars to four hundred and ninety dollars for a whopping 500% increase – just to go to court.

Let’s face it, if justice is truly blind and access to justice is as important to the judicial council as they say it is, then the only amount of money that should be required to schedule a court hearing over a citation should be equivalent to the dismissal fee; a fee that would be collected regardless of the disposition of the case.

Today we have well over 10.2 billion dollars in uncollected fees and fines and that amount is increasing by well over a billion dollars a year. And the reason it is increasing is in part because people cannot afford to have their day in court. Since a payment plan also requires a court appearance and a day or two lost standing in long courthouse lines, the poor cannot afford to be penalized twice by having to drive up to 180 miles to the nearest courthouse only to have to stand in a line that winds around the block on one day only to return to a scheduled court date a few weeks or months out.

Before the person ever stands before a judge, the person having to make the 180 mile trek to court has laid out around $270.00 in travel costs and if they’re fighting a $500.00 citation they need to come up with the additional $500.00 to make their case or explain extenuating circumstances and hope for leniency. This is on top of a few days of lost wages to make the trek back and forth to court. Let’s assume the person only earns a little more than the 9.00 minimum wage.

Before they ever get to court such a person needs to come up with over two weeks of wages while losing an additional two days of wages. This assumes that the person is employed at just above minimum wage and is contesting a $500.00 citation.

This costly scenario is why there are 10.2 billion dollars in uncollected fees and fines and 4.8 million people (1 in 6) with suspended licenses – simply because people could not afford to walk through the courthouse doors.

There are many people who hold whopping expensive three or four thousand dollar citations and are unable to contest them and refuse to plead guilty to them because they can’t afford to pay for them. They get one fine, say for speeding and they can’t afford to fight or pay. It increases in price, their license is suspended, their auto insurance is canceled and they still need to be able to go to work to feed their families, so they continue driving and get popped for no license and insurance. Usually at this stage, vehicles are also impounded adding over another grand to their bill for just being poor.

….and just maybe….the car was financed so now they’re looking at a civil judgement to pay the note on an impounded vehicle they can’t get back because they couldn’t afford to pay for its release.

That’s quite a price to pay for being poor.

The Chief Justice agrees: Last Thursday she called for an emergency rule of court that would require no pre-payment at all to have your day in court over traffic citations and other infractions. To be effective, this rule must be made retroactive to cover every case where a defendant owes money and did not appear because they couldn’t afford to. A simple declaration should cover it. Furthermore, judges should look at cases and see if they meet the “first domino” theory and have the discretion of dismissing everything after the first domino as cause and effect or we risk implying that getting to work is a privilege and not a necessity of life.

The Governor agrees: Governor Brown has called for an 18 month amnesty and a 50% decrease in fines, fees and assessments on overdue tickets and to look at the “whole business of these fees and fines”. Where to start looking is at the penalty assessments themselves. We’ve left the basic fees and fines virtually untouched over the last twenty years but we’ve managed to tack on assessments to those fees and fines that increases their cost by up to (and in some cases) well over 500%.

How about a little truth in advertising with respect to the vehicle code ?

Increase the base fine and if there are to be assessments, they must be legislatively included in the base fine so you don’t need a division at the AOC pouring over the patchwork of laws to determine what the uniform fee schedule will be.

Change the law to say “if it isn’t included in the base fine for the vehicle code violation, it cannot be assessed” That way when legislators want to pass another feel-good measure and make traffic scofflaws pay for it, they know what the fine was before they started, unlike today’s patchwork where a $100.00 fine is actually $500.00 but they’re lured into voting for it because the fine appears so small…..

Legislators agree and are putting forth a sliding scale to partly address the problem.

Amnesty moving forward: By most accounts, today’s fines, fees and assessments serve as a suitable deterrent for people earning as much as the legislators who voted for them. (Around a hundred grand…) whereas they are overwhelming for people who earn less and no deterrent whatsoever to a person who drove down the pacific coast highway so fast they split their Porsche in half when they wrapped it around a telephone pole at over a hundred miles an hour.

They’re also no deterrent whatsoever for people like the now departed Steve Jobs, whose earnings capacity made paying tickets for parking in handicap zones akin to swatting gnats in the forest. Handicap zones were Steve’s reserved parking spaces well before any need for a liver transplant. This has been well documented in testimonials, books and movies about the tech darling.

In Finland, a speeding ticket is going to cost you about a half days wages multiplied by the seriousness of the offense so if you happen to be a billionaire with a lead foot, be prepared to dig deep to pay that citation which may cost you the median price of a house. At the other end of the scale, a half days wages multiplied by the seriousness of the offense isn’t going to impoverish anyone or take food off the table.

Unlike California, Finland doesn’t require you to submit a half months pay to get your day in court. 

In short, the 10.2 billion dollars is phantom money that increases by over a billion dollars a year that the state will never be able to collect. It isn’t a lack of respect for the rule of law as the law might say the penalty is only $35.00! It is a lack of respect for assessments which makes that 35.00 fine cost $290.00 which is little more than a loophole to get around proposition 13 and raise taxes in a more palatable way.

If you want to see how many people respect the law, make amnesty an 18 month program to pay the base fine without the assessments and watch people flood the courthouses with payments.

Related articles:

California drives up traffic fines with fees earmarked for projects (Center for Investigative Reporting)