Editorials

A single speeding ticket shouldn’t be a ticket to bankruptcy

A single speeding ticket in California could drive a resident into debt. A bill being considered in the Assembly would let judges reduce traffic fines if drivers can’t afford to pay.
A single speeding ticket in California could drive a resident into debt. A bill being considered in the Assembly would let judges reduce traffic fines if drivers can’t afford to pay. AP

For too many Californians, getting a speeding ticket or some other traffic violation is more than an inconvenience. It’s a slow-moving disaster that’s likely to upend their lives and plunge them into debt.

California’s traffic fines consistently rank as the highest in the nation, and continue to disproportionately hurt the working poor and people of color, who are more likely to be stopped, according to a report by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights.

“It all boils down to money,” LaShanya Breazell, a Sacramento resident who went into debt trying to pay a $1,500 speeding ticket, told a member of The Bee’s editorial board. “And the working poor don’t have it.”

Senate Bill 185, authored by Sen. Robert Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, would go a long way toward changing that, radically reforming the state’s overly punitive system.

In 2015, Hertzberg carried a bill to grant a temporary amnesty that gave drivers who didn’t pay their tickets or didn’t show up in court a pathway to get their licenses reinstated.

Minus operating costs, that program brought in $24.7 million, as people paid what they could afford. It’s money that otherwise likely would have gone unclaimed.

Separately, Gov. Jerry Brown included a provision in a budget trailer bill this year to ban the practice of suspending driver’s licenses over unpaid traffic fines. He made the recommendation after examining data that showed suspending people’s licenses didn’t make them more likely to pay their fines, but not being able to drive did hurt them.

There’s also data from the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights, which predicted the state could generate as much as $140 million in additional economic activity, if it changed the way it suspends licenses. That many California residents – 78 percent of them – rely on their cars to get to work.

That’s a reason is why SB 185 makes sense.

If enacted, the legislation would force the courts to consider whether drivers can afford to pay their tickets before socking them with fines. Judges would be able to reduce the fines by as much as 80 percent, using a payment calculator developed by the Judicial Council. Drivers would then be able to pay their fines over time and without the fear of losing their license as punishment.

Senate Bill 185 covers moving violations, even though Californians have similar financial struggles paying other types of tickets. An infraction as insignificant as jaywalking can cost $197 once the state finishes tacking on miscellaneous fines and fees, and parking too close to a ramp for disabled people can run $1,105. The Legislature ought to address those fines, too.

Hertzberg’s bill makes sense in a state where millions of residents are already squeezed into poverty by the astronomical cost of housing.

The legislation, which cleared the Senate with bipartisan support, is awaiting a hearing in the Assembly Appropriations Committee. The Assembly should follow the Senate’s lead.

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