Apr
30

Why traffic tickets can cost hundreds of dollars

By Ronald Cupp PHD

By Gary Richards

grichards@mercurynews.com

When Sgt. Eddie Chan makes traffic stops, the San Jose officer makes it a point never to tell propicia drivers how much their ticket will cost. He’s afraid they’ll go ballistic.

Fines on traffic tickets have surged in the past five years as the state has added fees and penalties that can raise the cost of most infractions into the hundreds of dollars. Running a red light: $446. Driving solo in the car-pool lane: $445. Speeding at 81 mph on most freeways: at least $331. Ignoring a “don’t walk” sign: $173.

Why Pay All This?

And for moving violations, tack on an extra $50 if you go to traffic school to keep your record clean.

Even fix-it tickets that once cost nothing to resolve, like a broken headlight, now run $25.

Why the fine inflation? Lawmakers are seeing traffic tickets as a relatively easy source of revenue in tough times, and add-on fees are being used to fund services that may have nothing to do with traffic violations, like collecting criminals’ DNA.

Chan says when drivers ask him how much their fines will be, he avoids answering, saying he doesn’t want to give them incorrect information.

“They aren’t too happy,” he said, “but I’ve never had anyone go off the deep end with that explanation.”

The Legislature approves fees that make tickets so expensive, and the motivation behind those costs are many, said Chris Cochran, a spokesman with the state Office of Traffic Safety.

“The courts need more money, the counties need more money,” he said, and legislators have taken the view “that people breaking the law should be paying for administration of the system that takes care of these things.”

There’s also the deterrence factor. “And if you are going to pay more,” Cochran said, “then maybe you won’t engage in bad behavior in the first place.”

The proliferation of red-light cameras in the Bay Area and the steep fine for running red lights has drawn attention to how expensive tickets have become. But surprise doesn’t begin to describe the feelings of motorists who get notice of a hefty fine. More like flabbergasted and fuming.

“Ridiculous — it’s just not fair,” said Denise Matlock of San Carlos, who failed to make a complete stop on a right turn and got a $447 ticket.

“I had heard some horror stories,” said Ed Burling, a retired De Anza College biology teacher who was nailed for going 71 mph on Highway 1 between Fort Bragg and Mendocino. He expected a $300 fine, not the $458 he was billed.

Melissa Currier of Hayward was ticketed for driving 10 mph over the speed limit on a city street. Her fine: $385. “I was shocked,” said her husband, Jason.

What jacks these tickets up so high are the dozen or so fees and penalties that are tacked onto the base fine.

Take a ticket with a $100 base fine. There’s a state penalty of 100 percent — another $100. A county penalty of 70 percent — $70 more. A state criminal surcharge of 20 percent — $20 more. Add on fees for DNA testing, emergency medical services, court construction and security costs, and the final amount is several hundred dollars.

What does DNA have to do with driving badly? Nothing, but the 2004 initiative Proposition 69, which authorized the state to collect DNA samples from criminals, imposed a surcharge on all fines to help fund the program. Emergency medical and other services are funded the same way.

“The fine structure is a bit bizarre,” said former Palo Alto Police Chief Lynne Johnson.

Violators of the state’s hands-free cell phone law may be next in line for a shock. On Tuesday, the state will begin hearings on a proposal by state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, to increase the base fine to $50 for holding a phone and $100 for texting — with fees running those fines up to $255 and $445.

What irritates city officials is that most people think the money goes to the local agency that writes the ticket. Most of it, in fact, is headed to Sacramento.

If a San Jose officer issues a ticket with a base fine of $100, $83 goes to Santa Clara County, $87 to the city and most of the remaining $300-plus in fees and penalties goes to the state, according to the city of San Jose.

The impact is being felt in traffic courtrooms across California, as more drivers fight to get their tickets dismissed or their fines reduced.

“There are no empty seats,” said attorney Matt Geisick. “I’ve been to court sessions in San Mateo where 130 people are in a courtroom designed for 70. San Francisco had to add an entirely new courtroom to handle all of the trials.

“I’ve represented clients in every traffic court in the Bay Area for almost every driving infraction you can think of. Fines are too high. In these times, people just cannot pay.”

Do more expensive traffic tickets lead to better behavior behind the wheel? Contact Gary Richards at mrroadshow@mercuynews.com or at 408-920-5335.

With the amount of the cost of a ticket climbing and climbing I decided to start studying and learned some traffic ticket defense.  There has got to be a way to help people with these crazy fines. 

Your Advocate

Ronald Cupp PhD

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