A new report on California's outrageously priced traffic tickets pretty much tells us what we already know: The fines disproportionately affect the poor who, lacking the ability to shell out nearly $500 for a red-light camera ticket, can end up in a spiral of consequences that include job loss because they're not licensed to drive. They also hit minorities hard, because they are more likely to be stopped by cops.
How did we end up here? Elisa Della-Piana, legal director for the group behind the report, Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, says the answer to that question is pretty obvious, too. The state Legislature has for years created multiple add-on fees in order to raise revenues without having to do the dirty work of raising taxes. Those add-ons turn a $100 stoplight ticket into one that costs $490, according to LCCR's report, Paying More for Being Poor: Bias and Disparity in California’s Traffic Court System.
The result is that California has among the highest traffic and infraction ticket prices in America. Only New York, Connecticut, Texas and Wisconsin could compare, Della-Piana says. In fact, that $490 red-light ticket is three times the national average for a similar citation, she says. Can't pay on time? In California you will have to tack on $300 — one of the most expensive late fees in the nation, she says.
"The Legislature over the past 15 years has been using this as a revenue source when they don't want to pass new taxes," Della-Piana says. "It has the effect of being a regressive tax because it disproportionately affects the poor."
In other words, higher-income Californians can, with less pain, put a $490 check in the mail and be done with it. Poor folks — California has more of them than any other state — will have a much harder time of it. In a county where the median individual income is $28,337, a $490 ticket represents more than a week's pay ($476), which can mean lower-income folks will have to chose between milk for baby or cash for courts, police and government.
It's no wonder, then, that so many Golden State citizens lose their driver's licenses each year. "In 2015, the California Department of Motor Vehicles reported that over 4 million driver licenses had been suspended in recent years for failure to pay or appear on a citation — affecting about one in six California drivers," according to the report.
This, in turn, can lead to job loss, because about 5.2 million positions in California require daily driving, according to the report. Again, this disproportionately affects drivers of color, who already face hiring discrimination, more than other groups, the report says.
"For now, there is only scattered data about racial bias in California traffic stops, but studies in Fresno, San Diego and Sacramento help show that people of color — particularly African-American and Latino people — are more likely to get pulled over for a traffic stop," according to the report. "This disparity is not related to increased wrongdoing; in fact, people of color are more likely to be detained despite not doing anything wrong, as shown by data on stops without citations, or citations for non-observable offenses."
And, ultimately, the government is missing out because, in this state where Latinos represent the biggest racial or ethnic demographic, taxes generated by employed people with cars is worth more than the cash we collect from these tickets, the report's authors argue.
"If California changes its policy and stops suspending licenses for failure to pay, economists estimate that the state would generate $70 million to $140 million in additional tax revenue from people who would be able to work, or make more income, if they had a license," according to the report.
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At the same time, when driving privileges are separated from traffic fines, people work it out, because they're able to stay on the road and in their jobs. In other words, if we stop suspending licenses for failure to pay, we'll get that money faster, the report argues.
The report praised the California ticket amnesty program, which allowed people who owed on citations to set up payments and get their licenses reinstated. But it just ended April 30. The report also endorses legislation, SB 185, that seeks to end driver's license suspensions based on inability to pay fines. That bill also would direct courts to base fines on ability to pay. Another bill in the Legislature, AB 412, also gets kudos in the report. It would put an end to that $300 late fee for those who can't afford their tickets in the first place.
"Today’s report shows that the fines and penalties for minor traffic offenses remain too high and too harsh for many Californians struggling to make ends meet," state Sen. Bob Hertzberg, who authored SB 185 and the ticket amnesty program, said via email. "Now that the Traffic Amnesty Program has ended, it’s crucial that we fix this problem once and for all, and that’s why I have authored SB 185."
Della-Piana says these bills, if successful, could steer the Golden State toward a more just citation system. As it stands, she says, cops and courts are being tasked with raising some of the cash they rely on to exist. "It's a conflict of interest and a serious systemic problem," she says.