Eligible CA drivers to get amnesty for traffic tickets

California is offering partial financial amnesty for some drivers with unpaid traffic tickets under a limited state amnesty program.

Announced this week, the program — authorized by Senate Bill 85, and promoted by CA Governor Jerry Brown’s administration — will allow motorists with outstanding tickets to pay them off at a reduced amount.   The fee will be either 50 to 80 percent of the full citation amount, depending on the driver’s income, and will apply to tickets originally due on or before Jan. 1, 2013, officials said.

All assessed penalties will be waived, and payments can be made in installments, the Sacramento Bee reported. The program also contains provisions that will allow license reinstatement for drivers who lost their license after failing to pay fines or appear in court.

“Take a broader look at effective public access to California’s courts, including traffic proceedings and the impact of mandatory and discretionary fines, fees and penalties on court users,” CA Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said in May to the state’s Judicial Council, which is in charge of making policies in courts.

The Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) had received 4.73 million California license suspension actions from courts, according to report data from this past April. In that time, just under 82,000 licenses were reinstated.

California has come under recent criticism for its stiff traffic fines, including add-on fees and assessments that can triple and even quadruple base fines for minor infractions. Minorities and civil rights groups have advocated that the traffic fines disproportionately affect ethnic groups and the poor, and the inability to pay a ticket fine can put lower-income drivers at risk of unemployment.

“We think it is going to have a significant impact for folks who have been pushed to the curb,” said Mike Herald, a legislative advocate for the Western Center on Law & Poverty, who supported the program as a solid first step. “They can get out from under this cloud, get their driver’s license back immediately. They’ll be able to buy auto insurance again. Employers will hire people who don’t have a suspended license.”

The driver’s amnesty was considered by lawmakers earlier this year, when civil rights and legal aid groups pointed out that over the past eight years roughly 4.2 million Californians had lost their licenses because they could not afford crippling traffic fees, said LAist. Today, there are 25 million licensed drivers in the state.

Many of the huge fees tacked on to traffic fines were added during an earlier budget crisis to help pay for the court system and other programs, according to the Los Angeles Times. For example, base fines of $100 suddenly jumped to $500, and if the driver missed the payment deadline they would then owe $815–much more than many could afford to pay in time.

The amnesty will cover tickets for most moving violations, such as speeding, red light violations, and failure to stop at a stop sign. It also covers some non-traffic infractions such as loitering, trespassing, and littering.

However, drivers with parking tickets, a DUI, a conviction for reckless driving, or more recent traffic fines are out of luck and not eligible.

The program still costs $50 to participate, charged by courts, and the DMV will charge $55 to reinstate a lost driver’s license.

A previous state amnesty program in 2012 netted $12.3 million over six months, SacBee reported. Court officials and civil rights advocates say the new program has similar elements that should get more results; however, there are not yet estimates on how many drivers will take advantage of the new program.

A bill by Sen. Bob Hertzberg (D-Los Angeles), SB 405, now sitting on the governor’s desk, would also guarantee that motorists can fight their tickets in court before being required to pay their fines.

The amnesty program goes into effect on Thursday, Oct. 1 and will run through to March 31, 2017.

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