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State ruling: Motorists can challenge traffic tickets in court before paying

State ruling: Motorists can challenge traffic tickets in court before paying


Local officials say Napa County is not affected by a judicial ruling that motorists in California can no longer be required to pay traffic tickets before they can contest them in court.

Last week in San Francisco, the Judicial Council voted unanimously to abolish the practice of demanding bail as a prerequisite to challenging a traffic citation. The vote came as state officials have raised concerns that traffic fines and penalties are ensnaring minority and low-income residents. Fines have skyrocketed in California over the past two decades, and courts have grown reliant on fees as a result of budget cuts during the recession.

The Judicial Council’s decision takes effect immediately, and also requires courts to notify traffic defendants that they don’t have to make the payments to appear in court in any instructions or other materials they provide to the public.

Many county courts already did not require payment before motorists can appear in traffic court. Napa County Superior Court ended its prepayment requirement in 2012, and drivers can challenge most traffic citations — including those from red-light cameras — before paying, according to court executive officer Rick Feldstein.

“We very much welcome this rule,” said Feldstein, a member of the Judicial Council, the rule-making arm of the state court system. “It clarifies the laws of posting bail and vehicle code infractions. There have been a lot of different interpretations of it (regarding fine payments) and we think this clarifies it for all courts around the state.”

The state vehicle code continues to require drivers to pay tickets in advance in certain situations, he said Monday. Such exceptions include cases when a person seeks a combined arraignment and trial in one day, or “trials by declaration” in which a motorist disputes a traffic citation in writing rather than in person.

But the American Civil Liberties Union sent letters in April to eight Northern and Central California counties where it found the practice was stated on the counties’ websites. Those counties included Fresno and Shasta, but not San Francisco or Sacramento.

The ACLU challenged the practice, saying a court appearance was a right that should not be contingent on someone’s ability to pay. The prepayment requirement disproportionately affected minority and low-income residents, according to the ACLU.

“Folks who are completely innocent may not even be able get in front of a judge to explain their innocence because they can’t pay the $500 or $600 up front,” said Christine Sun, legal director of the ACLU of Northern California.

Some counties said they didn’t require prepayment, but the courtesy notices or tickets they sent suggested otherwise, creating confusion, Sun said. Feldstein, the Napa court administrator, said his department will evaluate the county’s printed notices and websites to see if they clearly state a motorist’s right to a court appearance before paying a fine.

The Judicial Council’s June 8 vote came as Gov. Jerry Brown last month proposed amnesty for residents who can’t afford traffic fines and penalties that have resulted in 4.8 million driver’s license suspensions since 2006.

Under Brown’s plan, drivers with lesser infractions would pay half of what they owe, and administrative fees would be slashed from $300 to $50. Brown called the traffic court system a “hellhole of desperation” for the poor.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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Public Safety Reporter

Howard Yune covers public safety for the Napa Valley Register. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.

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