A small-time traffic citation, even a $25 fix-it ticket, can, if left unattended, lead to the suspension of your license in California. What's a broken taillight got to do with your ability to get behind the wheel? Nothing at all. It's about money.
San Fernando Valley–based state Sen. Bob Hertzberg has been working for a few years to reform the injustice of California's traffic citation system. He's the man behind the state's 2015 traffic ticket amnesty law, which seeks to get drivers back on the road while reducing their citation-based debts to the state. Hertzberg now has introduced a bill that would end driver's license suspensions for those who fail to pay for small-time violations, including fix-it tickets.
The bill, SB 185, would "prevent the automatic suspension of driver’s licenses for people who are unable to pay fines or fees for minor traffic tickets and require courts to determine violators’ ability to pay before setting fine amounts," according to a statement from Hertzberg's office.
Gov. Jerry Brown has indicated support for the law in his 2017-2018 budget proposal. "There does not appear to be a strong connection between suspending someone’s driver's license and collecting their fine or penalty," according to the plan. "Often, the primary consequence of a driver's license suspension is the inability to legally drive to work or take one’s children to school."
Hertzberg argues that suspending licenses over inability to pay is an injustice that can lead to spiraling consequences, including job loss and dependence on public services. He cites a 2006 state of New Jersey study that found nearly half of the people who lost driving privileges also lost their jobs.
And the senator points to a famous U.S. Federal Reserve report last year that found nearly half of Americans don't even have $400 cash on hand to pay for an unexpected, emergency expense.
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Andrew LaMar, Hertzberg's spokesman, argues that taking driving privileges from people based on their inability to pay a fine amounts to a regressive tax. A $25 fix-it citation can eventually become a $1,000 ticket, and that can have a serious impact on the lives of many in Los Angeles (where the median individual income is $28,930). "People don't pay because they can't," he says.
Big-time violations such as DUIs and reckless driving citations would not be covered by Hertzberg's proposal. Otherwise, under the bill, suspended licenses would have to be reinstated if drivers make a good-faith effort to pay, including establishing payment plans.
"It would take the main idea of traffic amnesty and give them opportunities to set up payment plans and get their driver's licenses restored," LaMar says.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that law-and-order groups, including the California Police Chiefs Association, were opposing the proposal. A representative of the organization says it has yet to take a position on Hertzberg's bill.