Drivers don't have to pay traffic tickets before contesting them, Judicial Council rules

A police officer is seen speaking to a driver in this file photo. (KABC)

The Judicial Council has banned county courts from requiring people to pay traffic fines before they can contest their tickets.

The unanimous vote on Monday came as state officials raised concerns that traffic fines and penalties are ensnaring minority and low-income residents. Fines have skyrocketed in California over the past two decades, and courts have grown reliant on fees as a result of budget cuts during the recession.

Many people don't have the money to pay for the ticket that they want to contest. But if they don't pay it up front, then the fines mount. What started at $100 gets add-ons to $490. Miss a payment, and it's $800 plus. Soon you lose your license, then your car gets towed.

Traffic debt is a major reason many people drive without a license, according to Teresa Zhen, attorney with the South L.A. nonprofit New Way of Life.

But the courts can longer charge drivers before they contest the traffic ticket after the Judicial Council's decision, which takes effect immediately. Court are required to notify traffic defendants that they don't have to make so-called bail payments in any instructions or other materials they provide to the public.

"I am proud of the rule that has been developed," California Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said in a statement. "This is an important first step to address an urgent access-to-justice issue."

The Judicial Council's vote comes as Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed amnesty for residents who can't afford traffic fines and penalties that have resulted in 4.8 million driver's license suspensions since 2006.

Under Brown's plan - unveiled last month - drivers with lesser infractions would pay half of what they owe, and administrative fees would be slashed from $300 to $50. Brown called the traffic court system a "hellhole of desperation" for the poor.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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