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California unveils amnesty program for unpaid traffic tickets

Millions of California motorists with suspended licenses have a chance to win back their driving privileges at a discount, starting Thursday, under a state amnesty program for unpaid traffic tickets.

The state is cutting fines by at least half and waiving late fees for payments on tickets that were due before Jan. 1, 2013, an effort to eliminate what Gov. Jerry Brown called a “hellhole of desperation” for those who can’t afford penalties and lost their licenses as a result.

Brown signed the amnesty legislation in June. It takes effect Thursday and runs until March 2017.


The measure is especially intended to help poor Californians, who will receive a deeper discount — 80 percent — when they settle long-unpaid tickets for such infractions as speeding or running a stop sign or red light.

More than 4 million Californians have lost their driver’s licenses because they weren’t able to pay a ticket, according to a report by the Western Center on Law and Poverty. 


With an array of state and local fees tacked onto fines, tickets for routine traffic infractions in some cases approach $500. Expenses mount for drivers who fall so far behind that their licenses are suspended.

The root problem, say advocates for the poor, is a system of rising traffic and court fees that state and local governments have built in recent years.

“This became a very convenient thing to do,” said Mike Herald, a legislative advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “Unfortunately, the degree to which local and even state governments have shifted funding responsibility on to the backs of very poor people has been huge.”

Herald said the spike in fees has backfired as penalties have simply gone unpaid. According to his organization, California has $10 billion in uncollected traffic-related court fines and fees.

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