How a $100 Traffic Fine in San Leandro Ballooned to $549 as Calif. Piles on the Costs
By Caroline Chen, The Center for Investigative Reporting
Motorist Derick Neal doesn’t remember the April night when he rolled through a right turn at a red light in San Leandro.
The video from the red-light camera clearly shows the violation, he admits. Nevertheless, the 40-year-old software engineer is outraged about the price of the ticket: $490, plus an additional $59 for traffic school.
“It’s one thing if I was barreling through, but you can see my brake lights all the way through,” he said after viewing the video. “I expected it to be $100, $150 at most for the infraction.”
Like Neal, many of the more than 6 million California drivers who get tickets each year experience sticker shock. State records show that traffic citation fines have skyrocketed over the last decade, with some common infractions now costing close to $500.
Running a red light, currently $490, cost $340 in 2003 and $103 in 1993, according to the Judicial Council of California, which sets fines for traffic offenses. A ticket for rolling through a stop sign costs $238; a decade ago, it was $130. Speeding up to 15 mph over the limit also comes with a $238 price tag — more than eight times what it cost in 1993. And traffic school can add $60.
Oddly, the base fine for most violations has remained the same for the last 20 years. The growth in fines is due to add-ons known as penalty assessments. These fees are tacked on to citations, with the money earmarked for projects ranging from court construction to DNA research for solving crimes.
Viewed separately, each assessment might not seem particularly onerous, but the penalties add up. About a decade ago, there was one penalty assessment. Now, there are 10 — and total fines average four or five times the amount of the base fine.
The soaring fines don’t seem to have encouraged Californians to become better drivers. Each year, between 26 and 30 percent of drivers get a traffic citation, records show. But the high price of a ticket has led many traffic offenders to plead not guilty and contest their tickets in court, hoping to have them dismissed or reduced.
Derick Neal’s ticket
Base fine: $100
State penalty assessment: $100
County penalty assessment: $70
DNA identification fund: $50
Court construction: $50
State surcharge: $20
Emergency medical services: $20
Emergency medical air transportation: $4
Court operations: $40
Conviction assessment: $35
Night court: $1
Total ticket: $490
Traffic school: $59
Total cost: $549
Advocates say the increased fines are especially hard on the working class.
“If you’re a single parent barely making it, one of those (red-light) tickets could really set you back,” said Shane Gusman, legislative representative for the California Teamsters union. “I think folks are doing the math and hoping that it will get dismissed if the officer doesn’t show up. I know our drivers are doing that calculation.”
Some traffic court judges offer community service, rather than fines, to those who plead guilty. Gusman says this isn’t much help for many people. At the community service rate of $10 an hour, it would take 49 hours to pay off a red-light violation ticket.
The courts don’t track whether they are losing revenue because more motorists are fighting their tickets. But some courts around the state are struggling to handle the influx of people contesting tickets.
Trial dates are backed up in San Diego County, where the number of motorists contesting tickets has doubled in a decade, said court spokeswoman Karen Dalton. The current wait is six months.
Those accused of traffic violations in Los Angeles County have been facing waits of nine months or more for a hearing, said court spokeswoman Mary Hearn. But it’s about to get worse. Recently, courts underwent their third round of layoffs in four years.
“With the changes our court was forced to make in the past few months, I expect those numbers will again increase dramatically,” Hearn said.
Derick Neal pleaded not guilty on his red-light violation and went to court in Oakland this month. He was found guilty and must pay the full fine.
Experts say there is little chance penalty assessments will stop increasing because it’s an attractive source of revenue for government.
But there was no such clemency across the bay in Oakland at the Wiley W. Manuel Courthouse, where Commissioner Taylor Culver reigns over his courtroom with sarcastic humor. During a red-light camera trial on a recent afternoon, when one defendant asked for a reduction in his fine, Culver boomed, “Nobody here is special or better than anybody. There’s nobody here special but me.”
In another case, Culver cut off a defendant’s comments by saying, “Just tell me about the money. How are you going to pay?”
Experts say there is little chance that the penalty assessments will stop increasing because it’s an attractive source of revenue for state and county governments. A 2006 report by the California Research Bureau, which studies issues for the governor and Legislature, estimated that traffic violations bring in more than $500 million per year.
“I don’t know we’ll ever have a rollback unless the state had enough money in the general fund,” said Gregory Pagan, chief counsel for the Assembly Public Safety Committee. “It’s an easy way to find a revenue stream to fund (a program). They’ll never stop.”
The independent, nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting is the country’s largest investigative reporting team. For more, visit www.cironline.org.