Danny Vitali couldn’t afford the $142 fine he got for driving without his seat belt on.
When he didn’t pay it, the Department of Motor Vehicles suspended his license and slapped him with an additional $300 civil assessment.
But things got worse for the Petaluma roofer, who said he had to keep driving to earn a living. He was pulled over for a stop-sign violation in Cloverdale a few months later and found himself owing another $746, most of it related to his original seat belt ticket.
As he stood outside Sonoma County traffic court last week, he shook his head in amazement that his original fine had snowballed to nearly $1,200.
“It blows my mind,” Vitali said. “That’s a lot of money.”
Vitali’s story is a familiar one as motorists deal with expensive traffic tickets that have grown more costly over the years because of a variety of added fees for things such as statewide courthouse construction.
Those who don’t pay face license suspensions and additional penalties that many say fall hardest on the poor.
A report last month by a coalition of legal aid groups found 4.2 million Californians — many of them people of color — have suspended licenses because they were unable to pay traffic court fines with escalating fees.
That report came a month after the U.S. Department of Justice and Civil Rights Division criticized similar practices in Ferguson, Mo., that it said had an unfair effect on low-income people and minorities.
“California courts are doing the exact same thing as Ferguson,” Santa Rosa defense attorney Steve Fabian said. “The tickets are getting so high, people can’t pay them.”
For example, state and county assessments have driven a ticket for running a stop sign, which has a base fine of $35, to $234. In the same way, a $100 ticket for failing to yield to an emergency vehicle is $480.
If a person fails to pay by a certain time, the court orders the Department of Motor Vehicles to place a hold on the license and tacks on an additional $300 civil assessment.
Those who continue to drive and get caught are slapped with more fines, often exceeding $1,000.
“It becomes this terrible cycle,” Fabian said.
Data show about 28,400 tickets were issued in Sonoma County from Oct. 1 to April 1. During the same period, the court ordered holds on 8,347 licenses — or about 29 percent — for nonpayment of fines. Another 1,081 holds were issued for failing to appear before a judge.
Combined, civil assessments on county holds during the period topped $2.7 million.
Many people are unable ever to come up with the cash, leaving the state with about $10 billion in court-ordered debt, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office.
And Mike Herald, a lobbyist with the Western Center on Law and Policy, said only a fraction of the 4 million people with suspended licenses get their driving privileges restored.
Data from his group, which co-authored the report, show just 80,000 people got their licenses back over the past eight years.
Herald said that is proof the current system needs to be changed.
“You have a policy that’s not working for anyone,” Herald said. “It’s not working for the government. It’s not working for law enforcement. And it’s definitely not working for my clients.”