October 3, 2015 • By Dennis Beaver

If you received a traffic ticket in California and wanted to challenge it in court, having lots of money helps. That’s because many counties have required that the “bail” is posted before a court date would be set up. But it isn’t really bail in the legal sense.

Running into the hundreds of dollars — more in some cases — traffic citation “bail” pays the outrageous fines and penalty assessments — completely unrelated to driving — causing real damage to drivers unlucky enough to be ticketed and not having much extra money laying around.

With criminal cases — where the penalty can mean jail — “bail” is money is paid to the court — in cash or by using a bail bondsman — as a condition of being released from custody; pending trial.

But most traffic tickets are infractions. They are not a crime and the penalty is rarely jail, unless the violation was classified as a misdemeanor.

Equal access to the courts — for rich or poor — is everyone’s right. Yet, many California counties created two classes of drivers: those with money to pre-pay the fine and then have their day in court, and those who can’t get into court because they lack the money to post the bail.

Rubbing salt into the wound, when the officer who issued the citation fails to come to court, the ticket will almost always be dismissed. That’s music to the ears of a driver with money, but the single mom trying to make ends meet and lacks the $500 “bail” can’t even get into court. It is unequal treatment of people in the same situation — they got a ticket.

The obvious illegality of what many courts were requiring because “that’s the way it had been done for years” went unchallenged. Finally, someone recognized this glaring violation of both California law, the U.S. Constitution, and decided to do something about it.

It was the American Civil Liberties Union — the ACLU — with the assistance of the prestigious Pillsbury law firm, both based in San Francisco.

“This requirement of charging drivers fees and fines before allowing them to contest a traffic ticket came to our attention in early 2014,” attorney Christine Sun of the ACLU told You and the Law.

“A Napa resident received a speeding ticket and was told he had to post bail at arraignment in order to schedule a trial for some later time. He felt this was not legal, we looked into and agreed.

“We do not require a criminal defendant to pay fines before a conviction, so how can you do this with a person who merely gets a traffic violation? That is the crux of the issue,” Sun points out.

California’s court funding system is broken

“The funding system for California courts is broken. The vast majority of the fines and penalties in traffic cases have nothing to do with the way a person should be punished or deterred from unsafe driving. The state is using traffic tickets to generate fees for court construction, DNA testing and ways to collect revenue for expenses which should come out the General Fund,” Sun observes.

“Driver’s license suspensions are a huge problem in California. With certain DUIs a restricted license to go to and from work is possible. But if you are unable to pay your fine for a traffic ticket, your license is suspended and there is no provision for a restricted license, even though that would permit you to drive to work and then pay the fees.

“Where people do not receive a courtesy notice of a traffic citation, for example, where a friend or relative drove the car, got a red light camera ticket, but the owner never received the notice, it goes to a Failure to Appear. It takes close to $1,000 just to get in front of a judge to show that you had a good reason for not appearing. This is unfair and unconstitutional,” she points out.

Hearing from the ACLU, the court changed its policy

“We wrote letters to counties across Northern California, pointing out that requiring payment of ‘bail’ to challenge traffic tickets was illegal.” Shortly after that, the Judicial Council instituted an emergency rule, telling all traffic courts in California to immediately stop requiring bail posted as a condition of asking for a trial, with certain exceptions, such as a Failure to Appear.

“So, now a traffic cannot require posting bail as a condition of having your day in court,” Sun modestly stated.

It was no “modest” accomplishment, as her team at the ACLU and the Pillsbury law firm have done something terrific for all drivers in this state. 

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.