Traffic fines forgiven: Why California is offering amnesty for poor

Spiraling traffic fines and court fees that have led to millions of California driver's licenses being suspended.

ROBERT HARBISON / The Christian Science Monitor
Redondo Beach Police close off lanes on Catalina Ave. to perform a license check on motorists passing through area. According to Public Affairs G. Santana in the hours from 3:00 to 7:00 PM officers stoped 2652 cars. From that they issued 62 citations, made 14 impounds and 6 arrests. California has some of the highest traffic fines in the country.

California is instituting an amnesty program for residents who can't afford to pay off spiraling traffic fines and court fees that have led to millions of driver's licenses being suspended.

The program pushed by Gov. Jerry Brown and adopted as part of his annual budget goes into effect Thursday and runs through March 31, 2017.

Under the plan, drivers with lesser infractions would pay either 50 or 80 percent of what they owe, depending on income. Certain drivers would also be able to apply for installment payments for outstanding tickets. Drunken-driving and reckless-riving violations are not eligible.

Civil assessment fees would be waived for some tickets. Residents who have had their licenses revoked would be able to apply to have them reinstated.

Only violations due to be paid before Jan. 1, 2013, are eligible for discounts.

Since 2006, the state has suspended 4.8 million driver's licenses after motorists failed to pay or appear in court, the Department of Motor Vehicles said earlier this year. Of those, only about 83,000 licenses were reinstated.

When he announced the program in May, Brown called the traffic court system a "hellhole of desperation" for the poor.

The push by the Democratic governor highlighted concern among lawmakers and court administrators that California's justice system is profiting off minorities and low-income residents.

Traffic fines have been skyrocketing in the state, and courts have grown reliant on fees as a result of budget cuts during the recession.

Twenty years ago, the fine for running a red light was $103. Today, it costs as much as $490 as the state has established add-on fees to support everything from court construction to emergency medical air transportation. The cost can jump to over $800 once a person fails to pay or misses a traffic court appearance.

In Ferguson, Mo., simmering anger at the fines imposed by the court and the police – which disproportionately fell on black residents – was seen by many observers as fuel for last summer's violence after the shooting Michael Brown, The Christian Science Monitor reports.

A United States Justice Department report released in March found that the Ferguson Municipal Court worked with the police to raise revenue for the city through a harsh regime of fines and fees, often issuing arrest warrants when court appointments were missed or fees were not paid.

"Jail time would be considered far too harsh a penalty for the great majority of these code violations, yet Ferguson's municipal court routinely issues warrants for people to be arrested and incarcerated for failing to timely pay related fines and fees," the report stated.

In August, a judge appointed by the city council in June to reform the municipal court unveiled a plan to withdraw all arrest warrants issued in the city before Dec. 31, 2014 – nearly 10,000 cases, according to The New York Times. Those defendants will receive new court dates, new options for pretrial, and new options for disposing of their cases, such as payment plans or community service.

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