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Ticket amnesty program helps hundreds of Sonoma County drivers get back licenses

More than 400 drivers who had unpaid tickets in Sonoma County will get their licenses back under a state amnesty program aimed at relieving millions statewide from snowballing ticket debt.

The program that started Oct. 1 applies to tickets that were delinquent before Jan. 1, 2013. It cuts outstanding fines by at least half and drops civil assessments that jack up the cost of some tickets to nearly $500.

One goal is to allow drivers who suffered suspensions from past-due fines to get their licenses reinstated.

Among them is Erin, a 45-year-old Petaluma woman who did not want her last name used. She said she fell behind on paying a ticket for speeding and other infractions a few years ago and lost her license.

The situation left her unable to go to work and jeopardized her finances.

“It prevented me from getting a job,” the woman said as she stood in line Tuesday at the courthouse to file amnesty paperwork. “I can’t get to where I’m supposed to be.”

Now, she said, she’ll get back on the road and become fully employed again.

Her situation is not unusual. Advocates at the Western Center on Law and Poverty estimated 4 million Californians lost their licenses because they couldn’t pay their tickets.

They said the state’s practice of tacking on fees for things such as building new courthouses has driven the cost of tickets to unreasonable levels.

Critics said the situation is especially hard on those who can least afford it who drive anyway and get more tickets.

The program, signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown, allows drivers with delinquencies to have original fines cut 50 or 80 percent, depending on their income. Civil assessments are dropped altogether. Those with suspended licenses can reapply.

In Sonoma County, 528 drivers applied since Oct. 1, getting reductions totaling $470,000 and paying $185,000 in old debt.

The exact number of those who had licenses reinstated was not known but is expected to be more than 400 through Nov. 23, said Cindia Martinez, deputy executive officer for Sonoma County Superior Court.

Applicants face certain eligibility requirements. The program only applies to tickets in which fines were due by Jan. 1, 2013, and no payments were made after June 24, 2015.

Also, drivers who owe restitution or committed certain offenses such as drunken or reckless driving won’t get a break.

The program proved popular in the first two months, with drivers clearing nearly 1,100 delinquent tickets. By far, the majority were issued by CHP and Santa Rosa police officers. The bulk were eligible for the maximum 80 percent reduction.

Participation is expected to taper off as old tickets are paid. The program runs until March 2017.

“We don’t have the crowd in the lobby we had the first couple of weeks,” Martinez said.

“The first day, people were lined up and our phones were ringing,” she said.

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ppayne.

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