Turning right on a red light without fully stopping will cost you $500 in California. Parking blocking a wheelchair access curb could get you a $1,100 ticket. Is your license plate paint peeling? Some car owners have been hit with a $1,000 ticket for that.
State officials who set those fees are now acknowledging that the high amounts are threatening the financial stability of lower-income drivers who can’t afford to pay those amounts.
In his state budget proposal, Gov. Gavin Newsom is calling on judicial authorities to create a statewide program that will allow some of California’s poorer drivers to have their traffic citation amounts cut by 50 percent or more.
If approved by the legislature, Newsom’s proposal would expand an existing traffic fine reduction program called myCitation which exists in four counties: San Francisco, Shasta, Tulare and Ventura.
The pilot program was launched several years ago after officials determined that citation fine increases have resulted in reduced revenues to the state, and have put thousands of drivers at risk of losing their license or having their wages garnished.
“We are not achieving what we want to achieve,” said Martin Hoshino, administrative director of the state Judicial Council. “We might be incentivizing it the wrong way.”
A $500 fine is more than the monthly disposable income for many California families after they pay their regular bills, Hoshino said.
Statewide last year, there were 3.6 million traffic citations issued to all drivers. The state collected $1.4 billion in fines. But state officials report that another $1.8 billion in traffic citations for 2018-19 have yet to be paid and are considered delinquent.
“We have crossed that tipping point,” Hoshino said. “Why impose a level where they can’t pay and never will pay? You have gotten away from what you want, which is to create a deterrent for people not to engage in that (poor driving) behavior again.”
In the four test counties last year, 1,500 drivers with low incomes asked for and received relief, averaging $657 per request. The program allowed them to reduce their payments to $362 on average, according to a state analysis this week.
Newsom’s budget proposes using $11.5 million in state general fund budget money to backfill the courts in 2020-21 for lost citation revenue as four more counties join the program. Newsom proposes increasing that backfill payment to $56 million by 2023-24 “to expand this program statewide.” He instructs the state Judicial Council to “implement this program on a phased schedule, with several courts (counties) joining each year.”
The move, if agreed on by the legislature, represents a potential first step toward rethinking the state’s vehicle code fine system. Under the current system, the base fines for most traffic violations have not increased for decades, but state officials have slowly been adding extra fees, fines, assessments and surcharges to citations to help fund a variety of state programs instead of funding those programs through the state’s general fund.
The programs include brain injury research, medical life-flight helicopters, DNA identification programs, victim compensation, public safety training programs and local court costs.
Those add-on fees have increased many citation payments three to five times the base fine amount.
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The base fine for failing to stop for a pedestrian is $25, but with added fees, the citation ends up costing $198, according to state bail codes.
Failure to come to a full stop at a red light before turning red will cost drivers about $500 in most counties. Of that, $400 represents fees the legislature has tacked on over the years.
In the governor’s budget proposal last week, Newsom’s staff acknowledged the added fees have become oppressive for some ticketed drivers.
“Over decades, the state has increased the fines, fees, assessments and surcharges levied on individuals convicted of criminal offenses ...” the proposal stated. “Expanding the (program) provides targeted relief for low-income individuals while maintaining accountability. Further it preserves judicial discretion and uses technology to make trial courts more efficient and equitable.”
The program will focus on at least 50 percent reductions for households who receive certain public benefits or who earn up to 125 percent of the poverty line, which is $25,750 a year for a family of four, according to federal guidelines.
In the four counties that have already started the program, households that make up to four times the poverty level could qualify to have their fine amounts cut by up to 30 percent.
Newsom’s proposal drew immediate support from California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye.
“Governor Newsom’s budget proposal ... is welcome news for our residents, who rely on a fair, just, and accessible court system,” the chief justice wrote on her website last week. “The governor’s proposal clearly recognizes that fixing the state’s fines-and-fees funding model is a three-branch problem that requires a three-branch solution.”
Hoshino of the Judicial Council said court officials would monitor the changes to see if they are having the appropriate effect of bringing revenues in to the state while deterring people from bad driving.
Hoshino said state court officials also may look at ways of changing the fee system so that fines don’t continue to grow simply based on the state’s desire to fund new programs without tapping the general fund.
“It is hard to unwind that in one fell swoop and not cause other problems,” he said. “How do unwind 30 years of this?”
The state Legislative Analyst’s Office has been monitoring the fee program and concurs with a lower-fee approach based on ability to pay.
“While the determination of whether the fines and fees for a particular offense are proportional and reasonable is subjective, it can be guided by information on how the requirement to pay affects offenders,” the analyst’s office wrote in one of several reports in recent years.
That may mean setting up a new fine review system that could in fact lower traffic citation fines if the state is in an economic recession, the LAO wrote in 2016.