We can all relate to this bit of bumper-sticker philosophy: Get a ticket, pay a fine.
But what about: Get a ticket, lose your car. Or: Get a ticket, lose your job. Or: Get a ticket, go to jail.
In California, the poorer you are, the more likely you are to face consequences for minor traffic infractions that go far beyond what is intended or just. For instance, a failure to appear for a traffic citation can result in suspension of your driver’s license. Then, if you’re pulled over for any other reason, the police can and will impound your car.
When that happens, before you can get it back, you’ll have to pay for the tow truck ($175), the impound fees, an administrative fee ($185), a processing fee ($100) and $50 a day for “storage.” If your car is impounded on a Friday, by Monday morning you’re looking at a bill for $660 to get it back.
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Then comes the traffic fine and all the fees tacked onto it – fireworks enforcement, container recycling, underground storage tanks fees, etc., etc. A $40 speeding ticket can balloon to $200 or $220 with fees.
All that might be nothing more than a costly inconvenience for someone securely in the middle class. But for someone trying to work their way out of poverty, such bills become a full-blown crisis. Few have that much on hand.
Then it gets worse.
Without a car, how will they get to work? How will they get their kid to day care? How will they get to class or the second job? Or to the doctor?
One study found that 42 percent of people whose driver’s licenses were suspended subsequently lost their jobs. In Los Angeles, 32 percent of those driving with a suspended license were African American, though they make up only 9 percent of the population.
In a sharply worded open letter last month, the U.S. Justice Department warned courts about punishing people with shortsighted bail practices and high fines and fees. “Individuals may confront escalating debt,” it warned, “face repeated, unnecessary incarceration for nonpayment despite posing no danger to the community; lose their jobs; and become trapped in cycles of poverty that can be nearly impossible to escape.”
At some point, it became acceptable to nail any number of monetary tortures onto those who break traffic laws. But the pendulum swung too far. It needs to swing back.
Sen. Bob Hertzberg says more than 600,000 Californians have a suspended driver’s license due to failure to appear or failure to pay a traffic fine. Last year, a bill he authored was signed into law allowing those who can’t pay their fines to work out a deal with a judge. It also restores driving privileges to those willing to follow a payment plan.
Tuesday, Hertzberg’s bill to halt the automatic suspension of driver’s licenses for those who fail to appear in court for minor offenses, or fail to pay small fines in a timely fashion, passed the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee.
The full Senate should also pass Hertzberg’s bill.
No, we don’t have any patience for repeat offenders – they should feel the weight of the book landing on their heads. Nor should the law allow any leniency for those who drive after drinking or getting high or leaving the scene.
But for those who roll a stop sign, or drive 75 when the sign says 65, the punishment should fit the crime. That punishment should not include losing their car or their job or their freedom.
Much of the time, mercy works. About 60,000 people have paid off their citations at a discount under last year’s law. Another 40,000 have applied to have their licenses reinstated, allowing them to become productive citizens, meet their family obligations and pay their taxes. Getting a ticket doesn’t have to become a crisis.