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Traffic fines becoming too costly for many to pay
Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part look at the cost of traffic tickets. Part 2 will look at where the money goes.
One by one people with ticket in hand sought relief for their traffic fine Friday in court.
For Karen Ortega, the more than $500 fine for running a red light caught her by surprise. She never expected it to be that much.
She pleaded not guilty not so much because of the cost, but she feels she was not guilty of the infraction. However, had the fine been less, she might have just paid it, she said.
The cost of a traffic ticket has skyrocketed in recent years. And, no it is not the local police trying to cover their budgets. It is mostly the state of California trying to pay its bills.
“I see more and more people that don’t pay anything and give up because they owe so much,” said Judge Glade Roper. He feels the fines are out of whack and forcing people to not pay.
It is not the basic fine that has gone up, point out officials, but the penalty assessments continue to grow to where a $20 basic fine for using a cell phone while driving now cost you $199 in the city of Porterville.
“It just goes on and on,” said Deanna Jasso, Tulare County Court Administrative manager of the increase in traffic ticket costs. She said most of the “add-ons” are placed there by the state Legislature.
However, a few are also put there by the county and city. Tulare County sees about $1.7 million in revenue from its extra fees collected on fines.
It does not just stop at cell phone tickets. Any fine given by the court, including those for misdemeanors, has the add-ons that in nearly every instances more than doubles the basic fine. Officials said the basic fines have not been increased much at all, but the add-ons have and more are included.
Those add-on charges are divided over a myriad of programs, including court construction and court security, but also for things like air transport of injured people, DNA testing and emergency medical services.
It is not just cell phone tickets that are expensive.
Running a red light or sop sign in town carries a fine of $519, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Roper said a driving under the influence fine is $2,015 for the first offense plus $264 more. A second offense is $2,280, plus the $264. That does not include a car being towed and impounded and of course, lost wages and higher insurance costs. A second offense on a suspended license is $2,341.
Past Porterville Mayor Ron Irish said he got a ticket in April for “rolling” through a stop sign at Henderson and Highway 65. His fine: $545.
“The State of California has figured out there’s a revenue source (in tickets),” he said.
Not having insurance is $939, but if the driver can show proof of insurance, that is reduced to $500, still too expensive as far as Roper is concerned
“Let’s encourage them to get insurance and reduce it (fine) way down,” he said.
Roper feels the fines are now far too expensive and are hitting the poorest population the most, forcing many people to simply not pay their tickets.
“I’m fearful that every other vehicle you pass the driver doesn’t have a licence and are without vehicle registration,” said the longtime judge. “The downside to that is they have no insurance.”
He said the number one offense he is now seeing is driving without a license. In the month of September, of the 610 traffic citations written by Porterville Police officers, 100 were for unlicensed drivers, roughly 16 percent of the tickets given.
“If you don’t pay, they suspend your license. That’s why so many people are buying junk cars and when they’re caught, and the car is impounded, they just give it up,” he conjectured.
When a person does not pay on time, there is a $360 consequence and suddenly that $199 cell phone ticket is $559. That $360 charge is up from just $60 a few years ago.
In traffic court Friday, cited drivers sought relief. Several were granted community service in place of paying the fine. For a minor infraction — roughly $300 in fines — a person was given 29 hours of community service, plus a $50 to $100 charge was added to the fine.
Others asked if they could make payments, something that is routinely granted. However, a $35 charge is added to those wanting to make payments and the payments must be made within three months.
If a person does not pay, their fine most often is sent to collections and if that does not work, then it is sent to the state Franchise Tax Board that will deduct the fine from any state tax refund the person may be entitled to. Either way, pointed out Roper, the state gets its money and there is no break once a fine is imposed.
Drivers Hit Hardest
Tim Chang, legal counsel with the Automobile Club of Southern California, said the traffic fines unduly target drivers who really seldom utilize courthouses. He pointed out that most drivers simply mail in their fine.
While the extra charges could go back decades, they have steadily increased the past 10 years and few and fewer of them are connected to traffic safety. The biggest chunk of the add-ons go to pay for new courthouses, such as the one being constructed in Porterville.
Chang said the auto club opposes the add-ons for courthouse construction.
While the auto club is not aware of what percentage of people don’t pay their fines, he said a study in the 1990s found as the fines go up, so do non-payments.
“That’s a problem,” he said not only for the people paying the fine, but those relying on the revenue that does not meet projections find it a problem as well.
Roper pointed out that some people who he comes across have thousands of dollars in outstanding fines, a cost they have no way of paying.
He said often those in drug court have hundreds, up to thousands of dollars in fines that they cannot afford and that means they cannot get a driver’s license to find employment.
“After a certain point, people just give up. If it was reasonable, they will attempt to pay it,” said Roper.
The judge’s best advice to drivers: “Don’t get a ticket. That’s what I do.”