It ain’t easy to be a driver in California these days. The traffic congestion, loopy gas prices, and the prospect of driverless cars looming on the horizon make for jumpy drivers. Add to that Governor Jerry Brown’s latest proposal to offer amnesty to residents who can’t pay their traffic fines. The essence of compassion, until you scratch the surface and get a whiff of the eau de moolah that fills the air. Californians have been contending with increases in the amount billed for your average highway violation, noting unusual there. The cost of everything rises with time. California stands out because traffic fines for, say, running a red light have jumped from $103 twenty years ago to as much as $490 today. Inflation must really be out of control, but it isn’t. The hike has been spurred by how many hands are in the pot. That fine pays for, among other things, court construction, medical air transportation, and DNA testing. Courts, among others have grown reliant on the fees after years of budget cuts during the recession, and that money has to come from somewhere. Since tax increases are about as popular as that cousin always hitting you up for money the state has to have somewhere to turn.
Now, a member in good standing of the community this program is aimed at, the 4.8 million who have had their licenses suspended since 2006, would be expected to support it. California’s traffic enforcement law is being positioned as an issue of civil rights and poverty. “Everyone is entitled to their day in court and that includes the poor.” So says Christine Sun, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California. The problem with her statement, and with the governor’s proposal, is that when traffic courts can deny a hearing unless the fine is paid up front — something the ACLU has reported — the violation of due process cuts across demographic lines. California Chief Justice Tani Sakauye’s call to end prepayment is welcome, but it’s only a start. The kicker is that the Department of Justice Governor Brown is consulting is the same one that found police in Ferguson, Missouri were using the people they serve as a piggy bank. The irony must have been lost on him. But that didn’t keep the governor from casting his move as relief from what he called a “hellhole of desperation” that can provide revenue, and a “chance to pay at a discount.”
The unanswered question, the hanging curveball as it were, is what happens to the rest of us. If Governor Brown’s proposal has a flaw, that is its greatest. It offers relief to people like Michael Aramas, an Oakland construction laborer who saw minor citations for cellphone use and improper license plate display spiral into a $4,500 debt and leaves it to everyone else to foot the bill. The cycle of debt and license suspensions the Western Center for Law and Poverty referred to in its report is being sustained by the governor’s amnesty proposal, not ended. Traffic fine amnesty is not compassion and it is not a solution. It’s a distraction from the real problem. If Governor Brown and Senator Bob Hertzberg would like a little issue credibility they can start by helping Justice Sakauye’s emergency rule across the finish line. After that it might occur to them to take down the cost of fines, and associated administrative fees, for everyone. Put an end to what Senator Hertzberg called the “voodoo” of paying for government programs by increasing fines. That’s a civil rights issue worth supporting.