SB 185 dovetails with Gov. Jerry Brown’s budget provision stopping automatic driver’s license suspensions for failure to pay a ticket
SACRAMENTO – Legislation by Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, requiring courts to offer traffic ticket violators payment plans and to reduce fine amounts to a level they can afford today passed the Assembly Transportation Committee.
SB 185 states that your economic status shouldn’t determine your access to justice and ability to make amends. The legislation also prevents the automatic suspension of driver’s licenses for people who are unable to pay fines or fees for minor traffic tickets and directs courts to restore licenses for anyone already with a suspended license due to nonpayment who begins a payment plan.
The Assembly Transportation Committee approved the bill on a 9-4 vote. The legislation goes next to the Assembly Public Safety Committee, which is scheduled to consider it on Tuesday.
“Large fines for minor traffic infractions force many people to go into debt and lose their driver’s licenses, and that can result in them losing their jobs. That’s a punishment that doesn’t fit the offense,” Hertzberg said. “This legislation restores basic fairness and common sense to fines and fees for minor traffic offenses.”
A provision in the 2017-18 state budget, which took effect on July 1, stops the automatic suspension of driver’s licenses for people who are unable to pay their traffic tickets. In his budget proposal, Gov. Jerry Brown said there didn’t appear to be a strong connection between driver’s license suspensions and traffic fine collections. Furthermore, he said, the suspensions undercut a person’s ability to get to work or take their kids to school.
Across the country, rising court fines, fees and penalties for minor offenses have proved especially burdensome to the poor and working poor, who can end up losing their driver’s licenses , jobs and freedom – sometimes going to jail – simply because they could not pay a traffic fine or failed to appear for a court hearing. A New Jersey study found that 42 percent of people whose driver’s licenses were suspended lost their jobs as a result of the suspension.
According to a report issued last year by the U.S. Federal Reserve, 46 percent of Americans don’t have $400 to pay for an emergency expense and would have to sell something or borrow money to cover the cost. Traffic tickets often cost hundreds of dollars and can exceed $400, depending on the offense.
The state’s traffic fines and fees are among the highest in the nation and create hardships for many middle-class Californians, according a report issued in May by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area. In particular, the high fines disproportionately impact people of color, the report said.
SB 185 is sponsored by a coalition of social justice groups that includes the Western Center on Law and Poverty, American Civil Liberties Union of California and East Bay Community Law Center.
“SB 185 is still vitally important to California drivers,” said Mike Herald, legislative advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “Though the state budget ended license suspension for being too poor to pay tickets, we still need to make the payment plans affordable for all Californians and reduce the cost of the tickets on the poorest so that traffic court debt doesn’t cause people to miss rent payments, put food on the table for kids and keep the lights on so they can study.”
The measure is part of Hertzberg’s ongoing efforts to restore common sense to California’s criminal justice system and roll back unfair and overly harsh penalties that hammer those of modest means.
In December, Bob Hertzberg introduced SB 10, The California Money Bail Reform Act of 2017, which aims to replace a pretrial process that often forces people with limited income to remain in jail until a court can determine their innocence or guilt but allows the wealthy to go free.
Like a driver’s license suspension, a few days in jail can cost many people their jobs and send their lives into downward spirals before a court has even determined whether they are innocent or guilty of charges filed against them.
In 2015, Hertzberg authored SB 405, which, along with Brown’s related budget proposal, established a traffic amnesty program for fees and fines incurred prior to 2013. The traffic amnesty program allowed people to talk to a judge if they wanted to before paying fines, restored driver’s licenses to those with a payment plan and reduced exorbitant fee debts by taking a person’s income into account in setting the fine amount.
Over the course of that program, more than 205,000 Californians received amnesty fine and fee reductions and more than 192,000 had their suspended driver’s licenses reinstated, according to the California Judicial Council.
In 2016, Hertzberg went on to author SB 881, which required courts to respond to traffic amnesty claims within 90 days of the claims being filed, and SB 882, which prohibits youths from being charged with a criminal violation for transit fare evasion and instead treats the offense through an administrative process.