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Driving folks into desperation: That's the ticket
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The politicians finally admitted it.

Government is the problem.

Well, OK, they didn’t say that exactly.

And in their indignation they didn’t say that they were condemning their own handiwork.

But at the end of the day it still means the same thing: Government overreach is making it extremely difficult for the low-income to survive in California.

The epiphany was triggered by the U.S. Department of Justice making inquiries about traffic tickets of all things.

It prompted Gov. Jerry Brown to declare the state’s traffic court system is a “hellhole of desperation.”

The “hellhole of desperation” that Brown refers to is spiraling traffic fines, penalties and administrative fees the traffic court system slaps on tickets to generate money for the state.

Now Brown and the legislators tripping over each other vying to rectify the situation will say it’s not them (the state) but rather the court system. News flash! The state is responsible for funding the courts.

What they have done especially since 2006 as the economy started going south was protect state jobs and questionable or redundant departments and agencies instead of cutting state expenses in the manner that most cities and school districts were forced to do so. While local government started living within their means and rethought how they delivered basic services the state simply commandeered money from local government forcing even more local budget cuts to keep the state as whole as possible.

Part of that mixture was a need to keep the court system functioning to a degree since the state saw fit to spend taxes on other things such as a small army of bureaucrats at the Department of Water Resources that have done a magnificent job of solving California’s perennial flood and drought cycles.

As a result, a ticket for running a red light 20 years ago that carried a $103 fine and cost just that —$103 — now costs as much as $490. The fine wasn’t increased but the add-on fees imposed by the California Legislature with the blessing of governors have added costs for everything from court construction to emergency medical air transportation.

Someone making the state minimum wage of $9 an hour and lucky enough to work 40 hours a week is bringing home just over $315 a week. A $103 ticket in such a financial scenario hurts significantly but it is still manageable with scrimping and saving on other things. But a $490 ticket means they can either feed their kids or feed the court.

Of course when they fail to pay the $490 because they can’t, the cost of the ticket jumps to over $800.

Then the court suspends their driver’s licenses. Meanwhile some traffic courts in California — according to the American Civil Liberties Union — go as far as to routinely deny motorists a hearing unless they pay the amount owed. And since they can’t get their license reinstated until the debt is paid off they often get pulled over and cited for driving without licenses while doing things such as driving to work or to the store to get food for their families.

After the Department of Justice folks have started chatting with state officials Sacramento is shocked that traffic fines and soaring penalties have resulted in 4.8 million driver’s license suspensions in California since 2006. Of those licenses suspended for traffic infractions when drivers filed to pay, only 83,000 have been reinstated. Remember, these are not people who have DUI arrests or reckless driving charges.

Keep in mind this is not the fault of the traffic court system or the police. They are doing what the law tells them. And the laws are put in place by the California Legislature with concurrence from the governor.

So given the indignation voiced by Brown and legislators is the state going to correct the problem? Of course not.

Instead, Brown is offering a one-time amnesty program where drivers with lesser infractions would pay half of the amount owed while slashing administrative fees from $300 to $50. Then after 18 months the system would go back to what it is today: A pay to play court system.

It gets even better. The governor wants to slash both the fine and the fees. When you pay $490 for that red light ticket, the jurisdiction issuing it gets about $49 or almost half of the actual ticket. But cities don’t get a dime of the fees.

Keep in mind that in a typical year a city like Manteca receives only $90,000 in fines for the tickets they write while the court system can collect as much as $1 million. The $90,000 the city receives doesn’t cover the wages, benefits and worker’s compensation or a rookie traffic officer.

Perhaps the governor et al might want to consider fixing the problem instead of putting a Band-aid on it.

They can’t do that, of course, because it would mean denying their pet special interests from gorging themselves at the public trough.

This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Journal or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at or 209.249.3519.