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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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When people ask for mercy, he often audibly sighs, saying things like, "It's one of those days!" or "Here we go!"

While it may not be all that surprising that a traffic commissioner is unfriendly or harsh, Culver's demeanor and treatment of defendants can have tangible consequences. And an unnecessarily tough judge can be especially problematic in traffic court, where, unlike criminal court, defendants do not have a right to a public defender. That means the vast majority of people — aside from those fortunate enough to connect to organizations like the East Bay Community Law Center — are representing themselves. Twice when I went to Department 102 with Kirsch, she was the only defense attorney in the courtroom.

Culver's stridently unsympathetic style is also particularly alarming given that, in his own life, he has repeatedly been guilty of some of the same types of legal violations for which he regularly berates people in his court. According to public records, Culver has consistently failed to pay his state and federal taxes on time and has been fined for failing to pay penalties and interest related to his unpaid tax obligations. Alameda County Recorder's Office records also reveal that some of these legal infractions occurred while he's been a traffic commissioner. It was not until 2008 and 2009 that Culver paid off two longstanding federal tax liens and two state liens filed against him in association with his previous work as a private attorney through the Culver Law Firm at 1300 Clay Street in Oakland. Those liens, originally filed between 1994 and 2004, totaled more than $25,000 in taxes, penalties, and interest.

The records also show that the IRS lodged a federal tax lien against Culver in 2007 (associated with a different address) for a total of $70,275, including penalties and interest. He did not pay off that debt until March 2014. In total, the documents show that since the 1980s, the government has filed more than forty state and federal tax liens and lien extensions against Culver, which combined were worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. The records suggest that he has paid off most of his debts — often years late — although it's not entirely clear whether he currently has any unresolved liens.

Culver declined my initial request for an interview and after I sent him detailed questions about his tax liens and Kassof's complaint, he wrote back: "I will not be responding further to any of your requests. Please do not email me in the future."

Ethical questions aside, it's difficult to know whether the outcomes in Culver's courtroom are substantially different than those of other traffic commissioners in the county or state. Wilson, court executive officer, said the county was unable to provide trial data for each commissioner. Still, the style of the other Wiley Manuel traffic judge, Commissioner Elizabeth Hendrickson, is significantly less abrasive, and Kassof argued that the intimidating speeches that Culver makes often interfere with a defendant's right to a fair trial.

"If you're free to insult someone and engage in the conduct I saw ... it's not only unpleasant ... it discourages people from in any way challenging or going forward with their case," Kassof said. "It is simply a big highway sign that says, 'The system is rigged.'"


According to the recordings that Kassof acquired and my own visits to Department 102, Culver routinely ridicules low-income defendants, while affording police officers a significant amount of respect. In a trial last September, Culver sarcastically told a man on trial for speeding on the Bay Bridge, "You get up to one hundred questions to ask him," referring to the testifying officer from the California Highway Patrol. As the defendant asked questions, Culver continued counting down in a mocking tone: "You've got 98 more questions!"

The defendant, who is Black, later asked if the officer had video of him speeding. The officer replied that he had it with him in the courtroom, but Culver denied the defendant's request to play it. "That's all part of being your own lawyer," the commissioner said, later chastising the defendant by saying, "You're just making stuff up as we go along." Culver issued a guilty verdict: $1,166 total.

That same day, an older Korean man, speaking through an interpreter, tried to contest a citation he received from a Berkeley Police Department officer for wearing his seatbelt incorrectly — under his armpit. The soft-spoken man repeatedly said he did not understand why he had to receive a ticket for something so minor, saying, "Perhaps the officer could have given me a warning?"

After the man said he did not realize that this was the law, Culver responded: "It is, and I'm familiar with it. You are found guilty. You must pay $172. How do you want to pay the money?"

The man responded: "I'm a senior. I do not have much money."

Culver whined: "Here we go!"

When the man asked for a payment plan with monthly installments, Culver replied: "No. It's too small." He ultimately gave the man only two months to pay the full amount.

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