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Robert J. Thompson: Unreasonable traffic fines violate constitutional rights

The recent decision by the California Judicial Council to stop charging fees and fines to drivers contesting traffic tickets was the right thing to do. And the proposed law granting one-time amnesty for some unpaid traffic tickets is a good start, but not enough.

There is much more work to be done. We must continue to undo unfair fines set by the Legislature that harm low-income people and disproportionately affect communities of color.

I served as a commissioner in the Fresno Superior Court for 13 years and then pro tem for another 10. In my time as a judge in the traffic court, I saw firsthand how excessive fines, fees and penalties can negatively impact peoples’ lives. I am concerned about how these charges can harm people and, in my opinion, violate the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution’s ban on excessive fines.

We need to create standards to measure someone’s ability to pay rather than have straight fees across the board. There should be a base fine, and people unable to pay should be allowed to provide a pay stub, proof of disability or a tax return and have the fees reduced.

As a judge, I was under pressure to collect fines and fees. When counties stopped funding the courts and the state took over, the budget was cut and there was a struggle to find revenue sources. The money from fines and fees are forwarded to the state and are being used to pay for other government functions.

The residents of the county shouldn’t become buried in debt because the Legislature can’t fund the court system.

A $100 traffic citation can actually cost nearly $500 once mandatory state and county penalty assessments and surcharges are imposed. Then the cost can balloon to over $800 for a failure to appear in court or pay the ticket, and after that it keeps growing and growing.

For a single parent or someone on unemployment or disability, the fees become unmanageable. A driver’s license suspension as a result of not paying a fine can be life-altering for people who need to drive to work or to access healthcare. It’s a vicious cycle that leads to unemployment and chronic poverty.

A recent report by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and other advocates found that California traffic courts are saddling millions of people with these fines. More than 4 million California drivers have had their licenses suspended in the last eight years because they couldn’t pay full fines for infractions.

We need to create standards to measure someone’s ability to pay rather than have straight fees across the board. There should be a base fine, and people unable to pay should be allowed to provide a pay stub, proof of disability or a tax return and have the fees reduced.

In addition, the Legislature should repeal the numerous penalty assessments and surcharges that have been enacted over the years.

I am in no way suggesting there shouldn’t be consequences for traffic tickets, but the fines should be reasonable based on the circumstances of the individual. Someone on welfare shouldn’t pay the same fine as Donald Trump. Reasonable fines or community service should be more accessible. The prohibition of unreasonable fines in the Eighth Amendment is equally as important as the Second Amendment’s right to possess guns.

Income level should not create an impossible hurdle for Californians trying to address their traffic citations.

Robert J. Thompson is a former Fresno County traffic court judge.

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