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The so-called "base fines" — meaning the initial costs specific to certain offenses — have remained consistent for twenty years, such as $25 for faulty equipment or $100 for speeding in excess of 25 miles per hour. But lawmakers have continued to implement new "penalty assessments," which are fines added to a citation to raise revenues for county and state programs.
These add-on fees have steadily climbed, with lawmakers hiking assessments in an effort to help address massive budget shortfalls. At the same time, court budgets in the state have dramatically declined — dropping by more than $1 billion in recent years, resulting in hundreds of courtroom closures, according to the "Not Just a Ferguson Problem" report, which outlined the outrageous costs of a single ticket.
Today, a $25 base fine actually costs a defendant a total of $197 with various assessments; a $100 fine costs $490; a $250 fine costs $1,105; and a $500 fine costs $2,130. That means drivers may have to pay nearly $200 for minor maintenance issues (such as a windshield problem) and nearly $500 for certain moving violations (like speeding). Non-driving violations can be equally costly, with a jaywalking fine totaling $197, and littering offenses costing nearly $500.
"We've just become a court system that is so dependent on fines and fees," said Judge Marsha Slough, presiding judge of San Bernardino County Superior Court and a member of the Judicial Council, the policymaking body of California courts. "The truth is it does impact the most vulnerable people in our state."
Across California, people routinely struggle to pay off these massive fines. A recent government analysis found that the state currently has a total of $10.2 billion in uncollected court-ordered debts, which includes fines from traffic infractions and other criminal offenses.
Berkeley resident Donna Turner, 52, has hundreds of dollars in traffic fine debts, including for multiple citations that she said were incorrectly issued after she sold her car and the new owner committed violations. Paying her fines is simply not an option, she said. "It's a very big burden that is cutting into a whole lot of my necessities," said Turner, who is on disability and lives alone. "That's my food and my bills, the basics."
In California, the main tool that the courts use to compel people to pay their fines is the threat of a driver's license suspension. While critics and court officials agree that this is a better option than incarcerating someone who owes money, civil rights activists argue that a revoked license is an unfair punishment that only makes it harder for people to resolve outstanding debts.
For people who depend on their cars to get to medical appointments, take their children to school, get to work or a job interview, or buy groceries, this system leaves them with an impossible choice: neglect your everyday obligations — or break the law and drive.
Robert Coney's life is in his van. The 52-year-old has been homeless for about two years and currently stays at shelters throughout the East Bay, or friends' houses, or otherwise sleeps in his 1990 Chevrolet G20. Many of his belongings are in the van, but he's not legally allowed to drive it.
During a recent interview inside the Berkeley offices of the East Bay Community Law Center, Coney pulled out a thick packet of documents covering years of his disputes in Alameda County traffic court. A carpenter by trade who has been unable to find work, Coney said that his struggle to resolve his traffic fines and pay off his ballooning debts has weighed on him since 2012. His paperwork provides an in-depth look at how easy it can be to lose your license — and how hard it can be to get it back.
His troubles began with a February 2012 red-light violation — Coney said a red-light camera caught him failing to fully stop when turning right on red in the Fruitvale district. He subsequently missed a deadline to appear in court, and in December of that year ended up getting another red-light camera ticket for the same reason. In March 2013, he showed up to court to resolve both tickets and learned that he owed roughly $1,000 total, which included the two tickets plus a $300 civil assessment for failing to appear. "I told the judge, 'I have no money, and I'm homeless,'" he said.
Over the next several months, Coney's records show that he completed roughly seventy hours of community service to work off his debts — enough hours to pay off all of his fines, except for the $300 civil assessment. Coney said he turned in the proof of his community service work just before the court deadline, but that due to some kind of clerical error, officials said he was late in completing his service. As a result, the court lodged two additional $300 civil assessments against him for "failure to pay."
"I was so angry. I was like, 'I'm going to sue them for doing that to me!'" he recalled. "I just made a right turn at a red light!" In interview, Coney got visibly worked up and took a deep breath to calm himself down. "I just felt unbalanced. I couldn't move on as a productive person in society."