Dan Walters

Opinion: Our rights finally get attention

The Legislature and other authorities have added a raft of surcharges for various purposes to all traffic offenses, from courthouse construction to DNA testing and emergency medical services.
The Legislature and other authorities have added a raft of surcharges for various purposes to all traffic offenses, from courthouse construction to DNA testing and emergency medical services. RBenton@sacbee.com

So you whip into the drugstore parking lot to pick up a prescription and there are no spaces, except for several marked for handicapped motorists.

You will only be in the store very briefly, you tell yourself, and there are other disabled spaces available, so you take one of those reserved spaces. But you emerge, prescription in hand, a few minutes later to find a parking enforcement officer writing you a ticket.

The fine for that “infraction” is $250, but when you write a check to pay the ticket you will learn that the Legislature and other authorities have added a raft of surcharges for various purposes to all traffic offenses, from courthouse construction to DNA testing and emergency medical services.

The final tally is $1,104, one of the highest “bails” for the hundreds of traffic infractions, and much higher than many that could cause injury.

Proportionately, however, some are even higher. A $35 ticket for driving even 1 mph over the 65-mph highway speed limit, for example, expands to $237 with all the add-ons.

A middle-class motorist may grumble, write the check and keep on driving. But for the 9 million Californians who live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, a $237 ticket is a real hardship, and if it’s ignored, the fines escalate, and a delinquent motorist often loses his or her driver’s license and very possibly a job.

It exemplifies two syndromes – the arbitrary, almost predatory nature of traffic fines, and the tendency toward punishments that violate bedrock notions of fairness.

Gov. Jerry Brown has become a critic of piling ever-larger, punitive surcharges on traffic fines, vetoing those he considers excessive.

“I have found even a $50 ticket unpleasant enough,” he wrote in rejecting one such bill three years ago. “Upping the fines may satisfy the punitive instincts of some, but I severely doubt that it will further reduce violations.”

Terming traffic court a “hellhole of desperation” for poor motorists, Brown proposes a partial amnesty to allow millions of drivers to clean up their records and either avoid or cancel life-altering license suspensions.

In the same spirit of defending civil liberties, legislators are proposing measures that would reform the practice among law enforcement groups of placing individuals in databases of criminal gang members, often without their knowledge, and curb the appetite of police and prosecutors to seize property of those suspected of crimes, but not yet convicted.

It may be convenient for authorities to pile on traffic ticket surcharges, label someone a gang member or seize property. The latter may even be profitable for law enforcement agencies when they convert seized property into cash.

But such actions violate our hard-won rights to due process, and Brown and the authors of those other reform bills deserve credit for defending those rights.

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