Advocates say escalating traffic tickets snare Sonoma County’s low-income drivers

A report last month by a coalition of legal aid groups found 4.2 million Californians have suspended licenses because they were unable to pay traffic court fines with escalating fees.|

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.”

He said two possible solutions are in the works. Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to propose in this month’s budget revision a new policy that would cut in half the amount that is owed so people can get their licenses back and the state can collect at least some of the money.

Also, a bill that has passed the state Senate’s public safety committee would allow people with suspended licenses to get on a payment plan and immediately get their licenses reinstated.

“It’s a first step toward getting rid of the backlog,” Herald said. “We have to change the practice of suspending licenses for nonpayment. The current situation is a monumental catastrophe. It simply is not working.”

Local groups are also getting involved. Legal Aid of Sonoma County helps people on public assistance fill out paperwork seeking to reduce or eliminate civil assessments.

Holly Browne, a Legal Aid paralegal, said she gets about 10 referrals a month from county welfare workers asking her to talk to people caught in the system. She surveyed a local homeless shelter and found a connection between suspended driving privileges, unemployment and transiency.

“You need a driver’s license to get to work. You need one to take your child to the doctor,” she said. “People need to drive, and it can perpetuate criminal charges.”

Sonoma County court officials said they’re aware of the concerns. Jose Guillen, the court’s executive officer, said under consideration is a proposal to cut the $300 civil assessment in half if it’s paid in 30 days.

But some said the court has no motivation to give people a break because a portion of the fees go into court budgets. Also, some question court policies that require up-front fees for court forms and trials.

A form that enables people to apply to have civil assessments waived is not handed out until after the ticket price is paid, said Santa Rosa attorney Dave Jake Schwartz, who does pro bono work for Legal Aid.

“It’s all about collections, and it shouldn’t be,” Schwartz said. “It should be about compassion for circumstances and making the process more transparent.”

Guillen said fines are a small source of revenue and millions have gone unpaid. Policy requires that when a fine becomes delinquent, the person must pay the full amount before getting a trial or form, he said.

Others argue that the problem starts with drivers who break traffic laws in the first place and fail to follow through with obligations.

When they come to court, they are given options such as getting on a payment plan, performing community service or attending traffic school.

Traffic court Commissioner Anthony Wheeldin gives people with financial hardships extra time to pay. He sounds apologetic about fines that he informs people are set by the Legislature.

“Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the money goes back to Sacramento,” he told one man standing in his court.

At the same time, Wheeldin warns them about the consequences of not paying or not showing up.

“If you don’t come back, you’re going to have a fine that’s over $1,000,” he told another person.

You can reach Staff Writer ?Paul Payne at 568-5312 or ? On Twitter @ppayne.

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