Rapid California Court Rule Action Shows Momentum is Building on Fines and Fees Issue

Here is the story.  On May 1, the Fresno Bee ran a story under the headline: ACLU: Traffic-ticket policy by Valley courts unconstitutional.  The core of the story follows:

A court policy of making Valley traffic offenders pay fees upfront in order to challenge a ticket in court is unconstitutional and unfairly impacts low-income residents, the associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California said Friday.

In a move to give the public their right to due process, the ACLU has sent letters to Fresno and seven other counties, reminding them that a person’s right to appear in court — even traffic court — should not depend on their ability to pay a fee.

The Bee explained the back ground and significance as follows:

A recent report by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and other advocates found that California traffic courts have saddled millions of people with unjust, unpayable fines and fees, and have limit their ability to contest those charges.

The report says the U.S. Department of Justice found that courts and law enforcement in Ferguson, Missouri, are systematically and purposefully taking money from the pockets of poor people — disproportionately from black people — to put into court coffers. “The context may be different in California, but many of the practices are chillingly similar,” the report says. “As a result, over four million Californians do not have valid driver’s licenses because they cannot afford to pay traffic fines and fees.”

That’s because a typical traffic ticket in California is nearly $500, consisting of a base fine of $100 and several hundreds of dollars of additional fees and penalties that are used to generate revenue for court construction and to help fund night court, the report says.

Because many jobs require a driver’s license, the loss of the license can lead to chronic unemployment, damage a family’s credit rating and push families into poverty, the report says.

Well, looks like there is no need to litigate. 

On June 3, the California Courts announced that a special meeting of the Judaical Council would be held today, June 8 to:  “consider adopting a proposed rule that would direct courts to allow people who have traffic tickets to appear for arraignment and trial without deposit of bail, unless certain specified exceptions apply. .  .  The rule was developed on an urgency basis at the request of Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye in response to recent concerns about court procedures for deposit of bail when defendants challenge infraction citations in court. The council advisory bodies that developed the rule recommend it be made effective immediately.”

I understand that the Rule was approved today.  Obviously the speed with which the rule was adopted underlines the importance that the California courts place on this issue.  It is noteworthy that the June 4 Report recommending the change and the ultimate language, in analyzing comments received,referenced many suggestions for broader rulemaking in this general area, and while rejecting immediate action, it made clear that the reason for that immediate action was the urgency of already proposed change.

By the way, I understand that at the meeting, held by video conference at 8 in the morning (Califonria time), one of the California supreme court justices participating in the discussion talked about how the courts should be looking at ways to expand the ability of people to have their day in court, including using video appearances so that people would not have to take excessive time off of work and/or travel lengthy distances to get to court.

Its a new day.

P.S.  The text of the recommendation follows:

  1. Adopt rule 4.105 of the California Rules of Court to:
  2. State that courts must allow traffic infraction defendants to appear for arraignment and trial without the deposit of bail unless a specified exception applies;
  3. Describe three specific exceptions to the requirement that courts allow traffic infraction defendants to appear for arraignment and trial without prior deposit of bail;  [Bloggers Note: these exceptions relate to defendant’s chocie of statutory proedure requiring bail, defendant’s failure to sign written agreement to return to court, or “if the court finds, based on the circumstances of a particular case, that the defendant is unlikely to appear as ordered without a deposit of bail and the court expressly states the reasons for the finding.”
  4. Require courts to inform traffic infraction defendants of the option to appear in court without the deposit of bail in any instructions or other materials provided to the public that relate to bail for traffic infractions, including any website information, written instructions, courtesy notices, and forms; and
  5. Provide advisory committee comments that clarify the meaning of specific provisions and the application and purpose of the rule, including that the rule is not intended to modify or contravene any of the various statutory provisions that authorize or require the deposit of bail in lieu of appearing in court.

Direct the appropriate advisory committees as follows:

  1. The Traffic Advisory Committee to expeditiously review all related Judicial Council traffic forms and to recommend any revisions that are needed to make the forms consistent with rule 4.105;
  2. The Criminal Law Advisory Committee to consider recommendations, consistent with rule 4.105, to provide for appearances at arraignment and trial without the deposit of bail in non-traffic infraction cases; and
  3. The appropriate advisory committees to consider rule, form, or any other recommendations necessary to promote access to justice in all infraction cases, including recommendations related to post-conviction proceedings or after the defendant has previously failed to appear or pay.

The text of the rule is at page 10-11 of the Report.

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About richardzorza

I am deeply involved in access to justice and the patient voice movement.
This entry was posted in Chasm with Communities, Court Fees and Costs, Court Management, Poverty. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Rapid California Court Rule Action Shows Momentum is Building on Fines and Fees Issue

  1. ProBonoGA says:

    Reblogged this on Lawscape and commented:
    Hot topic around the country– debtor’s prisons.

  2. Claudia says:

    Thanks for sharing this new developments. The race equity aspects of these practices are serious and significant for communities of color, second and 3rd generation immigrants from non European nations, and the faith and trust aspects on our judicial system. These might be the new type of “Jim Crow” practices that bring everyone in our democracy down and it is great the CA courts moved so fast to address them. I was really following this–until you get to the video comment. As much as I love go to meeting and webex for work, it is one thing for judges (empowered and equal to each other ) to connect through video–it is another for litigants where there are often deep private power dynamics between the litigants and then the system. Once you get to evidentiary hearings–due process issues and the use of video need to be carefully considered. Once you do that–it is not as easy as it seems, nor as cheap. So I got lost there–on the video comment. That is a separate discussion that really merits a national discussion. We need to dig out the best practices on video use for evidentiary hearings, and have an inclusive discussion.

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