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The High Cost of Driving While Poor

Alameda County traps people in poverty with steep fines for minor traffic infractions — in a cruel system that depends on punishing Black and low-income residents and is plagued by hypocrisy and conflicts of interest.

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Alameda County, along with courts across the state, also refuses to let people do community service to pay off $300 civil assessments — it's one of the reasons why Coney has had such a difficult time trying to resolve his fines. Wilson said the court doesn't have the authority to allow volunteer work to count towards these types of failure to appear fines, but advocates pointed out that there is nothing in statute that bans this practice.

Huge financial penalties and license suspensions are not the only consequences of civil assessments. Once an assessment is issued, courts routinely require defendants to post the full bail before granting a trial date. That means a defendant who is innocent, but missed one court deadline, can't make a case in front of a judge unless he or she can pay all the fines and fees upfront. For someone with a $100 base fine, that would be more than $800.

"It's just so inflexible," said Meredith Desautels, a staff attorney with the San Francisco-based Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights, a nonprofit that co-authored the recent traffic report. She cited a case in which a defendant accused of a traffic violation was a clear victim of identity theft, but failed to appear in court and then was barred from getting a trial. "He just wants to explain his case to a judge. We have no doubt he's going to get the ticket canceled. ... But he can't post the money for an offense he didn't commit."

Even worse, if a defendant manages to get a trial and prove his or her innocence, the $300 civil assessment fine remains — since that penalty is associated with a failure-to-appear charge and not the original traffic violation. In other words, people who successfully prove that they were wrongly accused of breaking the law can still be saddled with significant debts.

In Alameda County, chance can also impact people's fates. According to lawyers familiar with the ins and outs of Wiley Manuel Courthouse in downtown Oakland, the uphill battle of traffic court can be significantly harder for people who end up in Department 102. That's the domain of Commissioner Taylor Culver.


Sometimes, Commissioner Culver makes people in his courtroom laugh. Other times, he makes them cry. Culver is one of two traffic commissioners in Wiley Manuel Courthouse, which handles all traffic cases for northern Alameda County (there are two additional traffic commissioners based in Fremont). In Department 102 on the first floor of the courthouse, Culver spends his mornings overseeing arraignments (when defendants plead guilty or innocent) and afternoons presiding over trials in which police officers and defendants argue about the merits of a citation.

Culver, who has been a commissioner since 2005, routinely makes long-winded speeches about how he operates his courtroom. He can be goofy at times, but if you're the butt of his jokes, it's not that funny. I first heard about Culver when a Lafayette-based lawyer, Sherman Kassof, sent the Express a formal complaint that he had filed against Culver, along with extensive Department 102 recordings he acquired through a public records request. Kassof — who specializes in antitrust laws unrelated to traffic court — ended up repeatedly observing Culver's courtroom last year after his own traffic dispute brought him to Wiley Manuel.

"I was really shocked by the conduct I saw," Kassof said in an interview. He ultimately wrote letters to Alameda County's presiding judge and a supervising judge last fall arguing that Culver's behavior was consistently unethical and inappropriate — in large part because of the way that he sides with police officers in trials and chastises and belittles defendants. Kassof alleged that Culver's behavior consistently violates the California Code of Judicial Ethics, which states that a "judge shall be patient, dignified, and courteous to litigants."

Over the past month, I also observed Culver's courtroom on multiple occasions. His actions were somewhat unpredictable, but he is often sarcastic and irritable and displays little patience for people confused by the process or for those who ask for leniency because of personal hardships. Culver regularly makes clear that he has no sympathy for anyone's personal problems. For example, according to a recording that Kassof obtained, the commissioner said in court one day last August that "many people, they spend time at home thinking about what they're going to tell the judge to reduce their ticket. That's not happening. ... Nobody's special enough to get some kind of break. ... The only person in here special is me."

He continued: "So whatever drama you wanted to bring, keep it. ... We don't waste a lot of time, 'I got babies, this, my husband left me, this that, this that.' That ain't got nothing to do with the ticket. And that's all we deal with here — tickets. It's about the money, and that's it."

In that speech, Culver, who is Black, also included an apparent reference to the Civil War: "It may be because of my age and my race, that people died to make sure the law applied to them the same as everybody else. We're not going to offend those deaths acting like somebody ought to be treated differently than everybody else. We had two hundred years of that and we're not going to have another minute of it in here."

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