Federal judge orders conference in traffic ticket case

A federal judge has ordered a conference in the case of a driver who got a $200 ticket for turning right at a stop light in suburban Sacramento. The motorist filed a federal complaint this week against the Department of Motor Vehicles, the California Judicial Council and the Sacramento County Superior Court, saying he is one of millions of people who had their licenses suspended because they couldn’t afford costs and administrative fees.

The 2014 ticket ultimately ballooned to $1,665, plus an additional $55 to reinstate his license, said Howard Herships, who filed the unusual challenge in U.S. District Court in San Francisco.

The document said the courts should not order someone jailed for non-payment, without first holding an indigency hearing and determining the failure to pay was willful.

Herships said he was unfairly denied a court hearing on his ability to pay the costs before his license was lifted. He contends the fines collected have less to do with public safety than with serving as a revenue source for the court system and its employees.  Herships asked the federal court to order a halt to the practice and require the state to hold ability-to-pay hearings for those facing fines and enforcement actions.

U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers set Feb. 6 for a conference to determine whether she will issue a temporary restraining order against the government entities.

The court was included in the complaint, Herships said, because it denied him an ability-to-pay hearing, which he contends are required by federal rules. The Council runs California’s court system, and the DMV was named because of its role in regulating vehicles and its administrative procedures.

“Traffic courts in California routinely impose exorbitant penalty assessments, fines and fees on all traffic court cases over and above the statutory fines” required for public safety, Herships said in the complaint.

As reported earlier, hundreds of millions of dollars are raised for the court system through fees, penalties and other charges — $858 million in 2013-14, by one estimate — and several billion dollars over five years. The amount of fees owed the state but which go uncollected was about $11.2 billion, according to a January 2016 report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office. 

The complaint stems partly from a March 2016 “Dear Colleagues” letter from the U.S. Justice Department to members of the judiciary across the country. The letter from the Department’s Civil Rights Division and Office for Public Access said that “recent years have seen an increased attention on the illegal enforcement of fines and fees in certain jurisdictions around the country,” often for misdemeanors and civil infractions.

“Typically, courts do not sentence defendants to incarceration in these cases; monetary fees are the norm,” the letter noted, adding that when the fines “are not geared toward public safety but rather toward raising revenue, they can cast doubt on the impartiality” of the judicial system.

The document said the courts should not order someone jailed for non-payment, without first holding an indigency hearing and determining the failure to pay was willful. For those who can’t pay, courts should consider alternatives. Courts also should be wary of fee-collections by third party contractors, the Justice Department wrote.


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