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Traffic fines are the stick while surcharges are the anvil drop
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So why are we writing traffic tickets in California?
It is hard to disagree with the premise of the new law Gov. Jerry Brown signed Tuesday that ends the court’s ability to suspend the driver’s license of those that fail to pay traffic fines. The bill’s author — Van Nuys Democrat Bob Hertzerg — is correct that unpaid fines that lead to a suspension of driving privileges can send low-income people into a downward spiral of job loses given they can’t legally drive. That in turn sends them deeper into poverty.
Gov. Brown, in seeking an end to suspending licenses for unpaid traffic fines, noted in January “there does not appear to be a strong connection” between traffic fine collections and suspending driver’s licenses.
Both points are valid but they miss the primary reason why law enforcement issues traffic tickets — at least originally. It wasn’t to finance the State of California’s budget. They are proverbial sticks designed to get people to follow laws that are essential for safer roads. A stick, by definition, has to hurt just a bit. 
The state’s move that goes into effect Saturday removes the stick to comply with paying traffic fines to avoid having one’s license suspended. That in turn essentially renders traffic citations for things such as speeding, distracted driving, rolling through stop signs, and such as effective at modifying driving behavior as shooting a charging lion with marshmallows if drivers do not pay the fines.
To Hertzerg’s credit, he is seeking to get a related bill passed that gives the court the ability to lower the fine for low-income people or opt to require community service instead. It would have been much cleaner if that had been included in the original bill going into effect July 1 as part of the state budget.
Doing so, though, would likely have exposed California’s convoluted revenue enhancement strategies to public debate and torpedoed efforts to prevent traffic tickets from becoming a financial albatross around a low-income driver’s neck.
The problem isn’t necessarily the ticket per se — although paying it can still be challenging for some. It’s the add-on fees or surcharges California lawmakers have slapped on tickets have can add as much as 80 percent to the basic fine.
On a $100 ticket, the person fined ends up paying close to $500. And if they don’t pay it pronto, there is another $300 penalty added.
So where does the money go?
On the basic fine of $100, roughly 15 percent goes to the jurisdiction where the law enforcement officer issued the ticket. It is why it is laughable to say a city instructs police officers to write tickets to generate revenue.
Of all the tickets Manteca Police issue in a year, the city’s share of fines that are paid comes to under $120,000. That’s not enough to cover the salary, overtime, and benefit costs for a typical police officer let alone support the department’s three-officer traffic enforcement unit. The remaining 85 percent of the $100 basic fine goes to help pay for the operating costs of the California judicial system.
That said you could still argue that a police officer in Manteca or any other city in California is a de facto revenue agent for Sacramento. The nearly $400 tacked onto that basic $100 tickets is collected is courtesy of the California Legislature. It goes to protect California’s wildlife, assist violent crime victims, help those who have traumatic brain injuries, pay for new court facilities, to train police officers, and for driver’s education among other things.
So go ahead and ask the $10 billion question, with $10 billion happening to be how much unpaid traffic fines that California has on the books that led the legislators and governor to conclude there is “no connection” between suspending driver’s licenses and fines being paid.
It just so happens the number of people not paying traffic fines — low-income and otherwise — started climbing steadily after surcharges started being slapped on tickets.
The real lesson is people can’t afford the ever expanding blob of government more so than a traffic ticket.
So instead of trying to address what really ails California which is Sacramento’s assumption the unwashed masses are smaller versions of Fort Knox, the legislature goes after a side effect. Lord knows the poor need relief from the burdensome cost of the expanding nanny state. In order for that to happen, though, politicians would have to swear off their addiction to spending money on every cause deemed worthy, go cold turkey on spending money besides on core needs that government provides, and actually try to refrain from snuggling up to those that see government’s primary function as transferring wealth so every need and desire of the populace can be fulfilled.
That applies to the haves as well as the have nots.
So why do we write traffic tickets in California?
While they are meant to get drivers to follow the rules by employing fines as the proverbial stick, they also are a way for Sacramento to pile up surcharges so politicians can fatten the bureaucracy.