Cal Drivers Owe $10.2 Billion in Traffic Debt due to ‘Penalty Assessments’

cali traffic debt AP Photo

For a state with 24,200,997 licensed drivers, California has suspended 4.8 million licenses of drivers who didn’t pay traffic fines or failed to appear in court in the last decade.

Most of these suspensions are not due to drivers being unable to pay for the ticket, but rather their inability to pay the additional 300 percent in “penalty assessment fees” that are tacked onto violations. With $10.2 billion in traffic debt outstanding and many people driving with suspended licenses, Governor Jerry Brown is proposing a partial amnesty to help many drivers get legal again.

The base fines for traffic tickets are determined by state statute, and the California Judicial Council of Judges have some discretionary authority to lower them. Those “base fines” have only changed modestly in the last twenty years.

But “penalty assessments” set by the California Legislature have radically driven up the total costs of citations, according to records from the Judicial Council of California. Lawmakers have come to rely on the “assessments” as stealth taxes to fund court and judicial operations. Most motorists consider assessments a form of highway robbery.

For example, a ticket in Orange County with a $35 base fine for driving one to 15 mph over the speed limit ends up costing $238 when the penalty assessment fees are added on. That same ticket in 2005 had a base fine of $25 fine along with $60.50 in fees and penalties for a total of $85.50.

The State of California adds penalties, fees, and other assessments that start with a 20 percent surcharge that goes into the state’s General Fund. The added charges supposedly also help pay for DNA identification efforts, emergency medical services, night court operations, and other programs.

Ticket increases have been across the board for just about every moving violation. For example, a citation for failing to obey a traffic signal cost $134 in 2005. But that same infraction now costs a total $238.

The first penalty assessment was set in 1953 at a rate of $1 for every $20 of base fine. The justification for the assessment was to pay for drivers’ education programs in schools. That meant that a $60 fine would be subject to a $3 penalty assessment, for a total ticket cost of $63.

Today, there are no drivers’ education programs in schools, and the use of assessments has metastasized. It is difficult to discern how much extra stealth taxes assessments, penalties, and fees actually generate. The Judicial Council does not track the overall revenue collected annually from traffic-ticket assessments. But a 2006 study by the California Research Bureau can provide some insight. The researchers found that tickets generated more than $500 million for the state in fiscal year 2004-05.

One of the most significant statewide fee increases occurred in 2009, when the legislature tacked-on a “conviction assessment” fee of now $40 onto traffic tickets to help raise as much as $6 billion to construct and renovate 41 courthouses across the state – none of which are in Orange County.

If a driver is cited for $35 base fee for a rolling stop, he will also now pay a $40 “conviction assessment, $40 “court operations fee”, $20 state surcharge and $28 “county penalty assessment.” But the driver will also pay some amount for DNA identification, court construction, emergency medical services and night court fee that equal another $75.

As the price of the ticket goes up, the fees follow. For the first time non-felony “Driving under the Influence” ticket with a base fine of $390, the total cost quadruples to $1,674.

With these abusive costs, it should be no surprise that California now has more than $10.2 billion in uncollected court-ordered debt, much of it from low-income people who cannot afford to pay, according to a report released last month by the Western Center on Law and Poverty. In San Francisco, where African Americans are six percent of the population, 70 percent of people seeking a lawyer for a license suspension were black.

Governor Brown called the system a “hellhole of desperation” for the poor and this week proposed a partial amnesty program to cut fines in half and reduce administrative fees from $300 to $50.


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