One of the more infuriating aspects of getting a traffic ticket in L.A. is that you're pretty much convicted and punished the minute a cop reaches for his pen.
The tickets can cost about $100 to $500, and you have to pay first before you can fight them. Doesn't the act of paying in advance make a determination of guilt just a rubber-stamp process? Ever fought a traffic ticket? Despite the burden of proof being on cops who can't even remember how many doors your car has, the odds are way against you.
“It's wrong,” says attorney Marley Degner of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP. “It's a due process problem. It's collecting the punishment before you're found guilty of a crime.”
Degner joined the ACLU of Northern California to encourage the California Judicial Council to ban the practice of asking folks to pay for the traffic tickets upfront, before the matter has been deliberated in court.
The council this week did just that, declaring that it …
… directs courts to allow people who have traffic tickets to appear for arraignment and trial without deposit of bail, unless certain specified exceptions apply. The rule also states that courts must notify traffic defendants of this option in any instructions or other materials provided by the court to the public.
Stop and think for a minute about the kind of contempt police, courts, traffic referees and judges had for taxpayers, democracy and the Constitution when they gleefully partook in this utterly unjust scheme, taking hundreds of dollars from people on the financial edge. They should be ashamed.
The council, which oversees Los Angeles County Superior Court and other systems that have been facilitating this unconstitutional fraud, says state judicial officials must abide by the order ASAP.
They have until Sept. 15 to make sure their printed and web materials reflect the new rule, however.
The council also ordered its Traffic Advisory Committee and Criminal Law Advisory Committee to “provide recommendations to promote access to justice when an individual has previously failed to appear or pay and in other types of infraction cases,” according to the council's statement.
The council's Chief Justice, Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye, called the move “an important first step to address an urgent access-to-justice issue.”
The council's ruling appears to be part of a larger wave of judicial reform in California. Amen.
Earlier this year state Sen. Bob Hertzberg of Van Nuys proposed a program through which drivers buried by traffic ticket debt would be able to get suspended drivers licenses reactivated.
Attorney Degner said she hoped the council's decision would make California's traffic courts seem more just and democratic to the public they're supposed to serve.
“One of the things that really concerned me about this practice was that, for many people, this was their only interaction with the court system,” she told us. “Here the court is violating constitutional rights to require punishment before the trial. For someone who can't afford the bail, it's especially unfair.”