“A driver’s license is essential to one’s economic security,” said Western Center on Law & Poverty attorney Rebecca Miller in a statement. “In the majority of cases, California suspended licenses of people who could not afford to pay their traffic tickets. The result did very little to make our roads safer, but it imposed a severe penalty on drivers with low incomes, making it harder for them to work and care for their families.”
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Riverside County’s practice of automatically adding up to $600 when a driver misses court or doesn’t pay a ticket violates state law and constitutional protections.
SAN FRANCISCO — Riverside County Superior Court is illegally adding hundreds of dollars in civil assessments to unresolved traffic tickets, according to a demand letter sent by Western Center on Law & Poverty and the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.
Riverside County’s traffic court automatically adds multiple $300 civil assessments on to California’s already expensive traffic tickets, without considering the circumstances of individual cases as state law requires. The oversized civil assessments are an excessive fine under the state and U.S. Constitutions, adding $600 to a $50 or $100 base fine. The advocates also say the court receiving income from these fees creates a conflict of interest.
“Civil assessments are inequitable and exacerbate wealth extraction from overpoliced Black and brown communities,” said Adrienna Wong, attorney at the ACLU of Southern California. “What’s more, because the money from civil assessments goes into the state Trial Court Trust Fund, courts have an interest in imposing more and larger civil assessments. Instead of doubling down on a structure that rewards courts for imposing civil assessments and deprives drivers of impartial decision makers, California could fund courts directly.”
“California’s traffic ticket system is broken,” says Rebecca Miller, a senior litigator for Western Center on Law & Poverty. “Despite multiple amnesty programs and other efforts to provide relief to drivers with low incomes, there are still billions of dollars in unpaid traffic debt. Adding hundreds of dollars to unresolved traffic tickets does not make people pay their tickets; these failed policies make it harder for people to work and create more obstacles for Californians trying to pull their families out of poverty.”
Civil assessments punish those who face added barriers to payment or court appearance, thus widening inequality and disproportionately targeting people with low incomes, people of color, people with unstable housing, and people with disabilities. This is exacerbated by the economic devastation of the pandemic, which has fallen harder on Californians with low incomes and people of color.
The demand letter sent to Riverside Superior Court describes how its traffic court policies are stricter than what state law provides. For example, the traffic court only allows drivers 10 days to ask the court to excuse their non-appearance or non-payment, but state law provides 20.
Additionally, Riverside traffic court’s forms artificially restrict the reasons someone may be excused for not coming to court on a ticket by only providing check boxes for medical incapacitation/hospitalization, incarceration, and military orders. State law says that a driver may be excused for “good cause” and does not limit it to those three categories.
Advocates are asking the Riverside court to stop imposing civil assessments, and to bring its policies into compliance with state and federal law. Change may also come at the state level, because the Legislature’s proposed budget would repeal civil assessments and increase direct funding to the courts.
Contact: Courtney McKinney, cmckinney[at]wclp.org
 Riverside Superior Court Form # RI-OTS38 [Rev. 10/13/17].