‘All about the money’: Motorists plagued by sky-high Calif. traffic ticket fines

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Casey Campbell served two tours in Iraq, but the fight of his life is in California.

After driving without a seat belt and no front plate, he got a $25 traffic ticket that jumped to $300 with assessments and surcharges. Unable to pay in full, the ticket rose to $600, and then $819 when he missed a court date.

The state automatically took his driver’s license and turned the ticket over to a collections agency. Police later impounded his car when he drove to work on a suspended license. Unable to make a living, Campbell ended up broke and homeless.

“It was $4,000 for two citations,” Campbell said, standing on a street corner in West Los Angeles. “And once the ticket went to collections, the judge said there’s nothing he could do. It just snowballed. At a certain point, there’s just no way to get back on your feet.”

Campbell isn’t the only victim of California’s effort to wring more money from traffic scofflaws. Residents owe state coffers $10 billion in unpaid tickets. Currently 4 million Californians — 17 percent of the state’s adult population — have a suspended license for failure to appear or pay.

It’s gotten so bad that Gov. Jerry Brown is proposing an amnesty program for those owing money.

“It’s a poverty trap,” said Theresa Zhen, a lawyer who helps motorists navigate traffic court. “If you can’t afford to pay, many don’t show up in court because they’re afraid of jail. Then the state automatically suspends their license.”

She said punishment is supposed to fit the crime, but that’s not the case in California.

“I had a ticket that went to $5,000,” said Adolf Barley, as he joined 100 other motorists waiting to pay their fine outside the Los Angeles Municipal Courthouse. “You do one of three things. You either go to jail, community service or you pay it.”

Another driver in line went inside a drug store to get change to feed his meter. He came out to find a ticket on his car. When he missed his initial court date because of a hospital stay, the state suspended his license.

“I found out I have a warrant for my arrest. A $2,500 warrant,” he said. “I’m a good driver, but now I don’t have a license.”

Critics call California’s traffic citation system a scam, a money-making racket that has nothing to do with justice. That’s because a typical $100 ticket – say, driving without proof of insurance — jumps to $290 with state penalties; to $416 with court construction assessments; and to $490 with surcharges for emergency medicine and DNA collection. If you fail to pay the full fine immediately, it adds a $325 penalty, making the cost $815.

“When they don’t pay that, they have their license suspended and it puts folks in a cycle of poverty,” said Christine Sun, a lawyer with the ACLU. “Once you lose your job, and you don’t have a license, you’re kinda screwed. It’s a huge problem. The state has been using traffic fees for far too long as a way to fund the system of justice here in California.”

The ACLU claimed the state denied drivers due process since they were required to pay a fine in full just for the right to see a judge.

“In a criminal case, that’s like serving your entire jail sentence before even seeing the inside of a courtroom,” Zhen said.

Even Gov. Brown calls the state’s traffic court system “a hellhole of desperation” and chided lawmakers, including the vast majority who are Democrats, for trying to balance the state budget on the backs of the least fortunate.

Brown proposed an 18-month amnesty program telling delinquent motorists to pay only half their fine in exchange for their license being reinstated.

A recently retired Los Angles traffic cop also recently told LA Weekly that he was expected to write at least 20 parking tickets per shift, or 32 if he was on overtime. To reach the quota the officers said he would cheat the system, writing tickets before a meter was expired or when cars were just inches over a red zone.

“It’s all about the money,” said Campbell. “That’s the only way I can put it. It’s all about the money.”

William La Jeunesse joined FOX News Channel (FNC) in March 1998 and currently serves as a Los Angeles-based correspondent.

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