Capitol Alert

Contesting a traffic ticket? California poised to ban pay-first policy

Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye responded to concerns about disparities in how courts notify defendants and handle bail when someone challenges a citation in court.
Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye responded to concerns about disparities in how courts notify defendants and handle bail when someone challenges a citation in court.

California court officials plan to let those with traffic tickets across the state appear in court without paying up front.

The new rule, expected to win approval from the state Judicial Council at a special telephone meeting Monday, is viewed by policymakers as a preliminary move in a broader effort to expand access to the court system.

It was spearheaded by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, who pushed for the change on an urgency basis in response to concerns about disparities in how courts notify defendants and handle bail when someone challenges a citation in court.

While many counties, including Sacramento, San Francisco and Los Angeles, generally do not require payment to contest a ticket, some do. Marin County, for example, tells motorists they must post the full bail, considered a guarantee of appearance, before a trial date will be set. El Dorado County requires motorists to first post bail, according to its website. If found not guilty, motorists are refunded the amount in four to six weeks.

Presiding Judge Marsha Slough of San Bernardino Superior Court described the traffic rules for fines, fees and trials as “complex and convoluted.” The new rule, developed in weeks rather than the usual months, would establish a standardized policy and take effect immediately. It provides for certain exceptions and requires courts to give traffic defendants notice of their options in written instructions or other materials.

“Our goal is to let people have their day in court,” Slough said.

Neither Slough nor a spokeswoman for the council could provide information on how many counties would be affected.

Robert Sherman, the assistant court executive officer in Ventura, said the rule would have virtually no effect on operations there, save for some possible adjustments to the notices it sends.

“That should be the case in the majority of the courts around the state,” he said.

The proposal comes amid renewed debate about how to lessen the financial blow of mushrooming government fees and fines, particularly on the poor. More than 4 million Californians have had their driver’s licenses revoked for failure to pay traffic fines or appear in court, state records show, with the number rising during the economic recession. That has inspired state amnesty legislation, and a similar proposal by Gov. Jerry Brown, to help clear the years-old suspension backlog.

California court officials said they were motivated by a recent analysis from legal aid and civil rights groups that found low-income residents are being disproportionately affected by laws and procedures relating to license suspensions. The report, which came out in April, noted that some counties require bail for anyone who wants a court date on their citation.

About 1.7 million of 4.75 million California traffic infractions were contested in 2012-13, according to most recent statistics available from the Judicial Council.

“If you have money, you can get a trial, as is your constitutional right,” it states. “If you cannot afford to pay to get into court, you could be stuck with no driver’s license and hundreds or thousands of dollars in fines – even if you are innocent.”

Elisa Della-Piana, a co-author of the report and program director of the East Bay Community Law Center, said she was initially excited to hear that the courts were moving swiftly to take up the issue. However, she and others from the Western Center on Law & Poverty, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Bay Area Legal Aid said they were disappointed that the change would not deal with the broader problem of motorists who incur substantial costs after failing to appear.

The group wants motorists who miss their first court date to have a second chance to appear without making the payment.

In a Friday letter to the Judicial Council, they wrote that the proposed change “would continue (a) two-tiered system of justice.”

“With this requirement, people who missed their original court date will still bear the burden of paying all of their fines, fees and assessments before being able to appear before a judge,” the letter states. “... we see that the principal problem is with exactly that group of people who missed their original court date and cannot get in front of a judge because they cannot afford the $300 assessment for failure to appear.”

Worse, Della-Piana said, the new rule may actually serve as a setback of sorts because counties where officials seemed amenable to doing things differently may now feel bound by a statewide policy.

“Requiring a few less people to pay is a small step. And to the extent we should celebrate every step, even the small ones, that’s great,” she said in an interview. “But without addressing the 4.4 million people with suspended licenses, the Judicial Council is turning a blind eye to the rampant injustice across the state.”

Slough, chair of the trial court presiding judges advisory committee, countered that the change demonstrates Cantil-Sakauye is committed to advancing reforms.

She and judges have become increasingly aware of the roadblocks that have “inadvertently and unintentionally” caused difficulties for people “who are just trying to get in a car and get to work or find a job,” Slough said.

She noted that the chief justice’s Futures Commission is also diving into larger issues of access, including the impact of all fines, fees and court penalties.

“My hope is that people view the chief’s direction as a significant first step,” Slough added. “It’s unprecedented in the speed in which this is being implemented, and we recognize it not as the solution, but a large piece in a complex puzzle of which all three branches hold corner pieces.”

Christopher Cadelago: (916) 326-5538, @ccadelago

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