Sky-High Fines are Self-Defeating

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red light close up

Arthur came into my District Office one day with a problem. He explained his situation hoping to get help. Apparently, Arthur ran a red light and was caught by an automated camera system. Because no officer on patrol actually stopped him and told him what he had done wrong, he was not aware of the violation at the time.

Arthur never received his ticket in the mail because he is in between homes. Court records show that the summonses had been returned undelivered on two occasions. Fortunately, Arthur was able to receive some mail which was delivered to a friend’s home including a letter from the DMV. The letter from the DMV warned him his license would be suspended for failing to pay the ticket.

In order to solve the issue, Arthur went to the courthouse to explain the situation.  He was offered a new court date and the judge said he would consider being lenient. Unfortunately, the court date was weeks after his license would be suspended. To clear up the suspension, he would have to pay the full fine and penalties; roughly $700 including hundreds in charges for failing to respond to a court summons. A summons the court’s own records show he never received.

If he did not pay the fine, Arthur would be breaking the law anytime he drove his car. The car he happened to be living in when he was looking for work. Arthur was able to solve his issue, but millions of Californians are not as lucky.  This is an issue that must be addressed.

Caught between steep fines, automated enforcement, and a system that suspends driver’s licenses as a collections tool, millions of Californians have lost their ability to legally drive. A report this spring concluded that more than 4 million Californians’ licenses were suspended from 2006 to 2013, with only a tiny fraction ever restored. They owe some $10 billion in unpaid fines.

If citizens cannot pay their fines in the first place, exactly how are they going to pay a much larger fine without the ability to legally drive? Unless they live in one of the few parts of the state with a robust public transportation network, which none of my rural constituents in the 1st Assembly District do, how are they going to obtain and maintain employment without a license?

Some people are just too heedless or irresponsible to take care of their fines. Some measure of accountability is important. But suspending a driver’s license is a severe penalty that should be reserved for keeping the roads safe. Nobody is crying for the drunk drivers who lose their licenses. But the fact is, the law often treats DUI offenders with more grace than it does the fellow who could not pay the $230 ticket for an improper lane change.

California needs to take a hard look at how its ticketing practices punish poor residents beyond reason or justice.  The money raised through traffic fines pays for important programs such as DNA databases, emergency medical services, court construction. Scofflaws are an easy target, but we have crossed the line into extracting money for too many public services from those least able to pay.

Suspending licenses for unpaid debts is not only cruel to those who truly cannot pay but counterproductive when it costs people the very jobs they need. For middle-class professionals, a ticket might be an embarrassment and a headache.  For a family already scraping by on low or sporadic wages, the system leaves them stuck in a legal and financial trap – a “hellhole of desperation,” as Gov. Jerry Brown recently described it. The Governor has proposed an amnesty program for unpaid tickets with penalties waived and tickets reduced on a sliding scale based on ability to pay. It is a great idea, but just a start, more needs to be done.

Brian Dahle

Brian Dahle

Assemblyman Brian Dahle, R-Bieber, represents Californias 1st Assembly District, which contains all of Lassen, Modoc, Nevada, Plumas, Sierra, Siskiyou, and Shasta Counties, and portions of Butte and Placer Counties.


Doni Chamberlain
Independent online journalist Doni Chamberlain founded what’s now known as in 2007 with her son, Joe Domke of the Czech Republic. Chamberlain is an award-winning newspaper opinion columnist, feature and food writer recognized by the Associated Press, the California Newspaper Publishers Association and E.W. Scripps. She lives in Redding, California.
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6 Responses

  1. Avatar Richard C. says:

    Thank you, Assemblyman Dahle, for your articulate and informative comments. Though I have never been in that unfortunate situation, your eloquent description persuades me to support a rational change to the current policy.

  2. Avatar Budd Hodges says:

    These entrapping rip off red light cameras are an embarrassment to the City.  Welcome to sunny Redding,  you’ve just been caught on our tricked out red light camera. Never mind that the amber light is shorter at this corner and we caught you going through a red light, the company that installed them gets most of your fine and it’s a big one. If you don’t pay it we’ll take your licence and your transportation to and from work. Most major cities who contracted with this rip off have taken them out by now but, has Redding? But no, arguing that they save lives.Do us a favor Redding, tear down this wall, Take down those damn cameras.

  3. Avatar Canda Williams says:

    Very informative article, and Budd, I’m with you 100%!

  4. Avatar Cal Hunter says:

    This is the same as Auto Registration.  One month late on a car you can’t afford to register and the amount DOUBLES!  That really helps, doesn’t it?  The sad fact is that the Great State of California has decided it’s citizens are nothing more than sources of revenue and any chance they have to extract more money from the people will be gleefully taken.  These traffic fines are imposed by judges whose median salary is $176,000.00 per year.  As for registration… the same question must be posed.  How does doubling the registration help the people of the state… especially the poor or those who are in a cash-crunch? Are the people not for whom so-called “civil servants” work?  WHY is this OK?

    We are being fleeced with taxes, fees, “greenhouse gas” charges, and on and on.  And who benefits?  Can these same services be provided more frugally?  NO ONE EVER asks that question.  No One!  Yet, the state builds new courthouses (16 Million in Tehama County) all based on so-called “court costs” added on to traffic fines…   in effect doubling them, and making criminals out of citizens who get caught in the “red light camera trap”.

    These fees are taxes, imposed without a vote.  One of those well-paid judges (who benefits from the decision) undoubtedly signed off on them… but we live in a society tinged with an ever encroaching tyranny.

    We need Senators from every County…  Sacramento needs a loyal opposition!  We need representation that is listened to by the majority party no matter which one that is…  which a county-based senate like California used to have, would provide.  We need government by for and of the people, not people who live to be fleeced of their every dime by the ever growing and unnecessary governmental  bureaucracy.

    There.  I’m glad I said it!

  5. Avatar cheyenne says:

    Another reason the Republicans are taking back Colorado.  Two red light camera bills, one allowing voters in each district to vote on whether to allow red light cameras and one out right banning red light cameras, were vetoed by Democratic Governor Hickenlooper.  Of the voter bill the Governor stated that voters already have a choice.  That statement may prove prophetic in 2016 as Clinton now trails Bush, Rubio and Walker in the swing state.  While the president may not have anything to do with Colorado’s red light cameras the polls show a shift from Democrat to Republican in many areas of Colorado.

  6. Avatar Teuchter says:

    A nice article with absolutely no meaningful solutions presented.  Another internet win for the assemblyman who reportedly dumps unclassified waste on his property and lets it sit for years, ignoring water and land use laws.

    A good solution to this issue: Issue cops that make unsignalled lane changes, rolling stops, and yap on their cell phones appropriate fines for their illegal yet ignored activities.  Only when LE and politicians are held to the same standard as citizens will change be forthcoming.