New rule adopted by California traffic courts fails to address a major obstacle to justice for many low-income traffic court defendants.
East Bay Express (Oakland)
June 9, 2015
Organizations mentioned/involved: East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC), Judicial Council of California (Judicial Council)
In the face of widespread criticism that California traffic courts are plagued by unnecessarily harsh practices, court officials yesterday adopted an emergency rule aimed at granting people access to trials regardless of their ability to pay steep fines. Advocates said that, though this policy change is a step in the right direction, the new rule fails to address a major obstacle to justice for many low-income traffic court defendants — that they are routinely denied access to hearings when they miss a court deadline for a citation.
Traffic courts across the state have faced intense scrutiny for a so-called “pay-to-play” system. The system frequently refuses to grant defendants trials until they have paid the full bail amount, which can be hundreds of dollars. As a result, low-income drivers who are innocent (such as victims of identity theft) or who have extenuating circumstances (such as personal hardships preventing them from paying their fines) often can’t even explain their cases to a judge.
The new rule, which is effective immediately, is designed to address this disparity. It says that, in the case of traffic infractions, “courts must allow a defendant to appear for arraignment and trial without deposit of bail.” The Judicial Council, the policy making body of the California courts, unanimously voted to adopt the rule, which California Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye promoted on the heels of the increasing backlash.
However, the rule does not address what happens when a defendant misses a court deadline. As the East Bay Community Law Center (EBCLC) in its report on traffic fines, courts routinely issue “failure to appear” citations and then automatically block the individual from having a trial until he or she pays the full bail amount. The citations carry additional penalties as well, such as driver’s license suspension, and the new rule does not prevent courts from continuing to implement this punitive practice. The rule, in outlining exceptions, says: “Courts may require a deposit of bail before trial if the court finds, based on the circumstances of a particular case, that the defendant is unlikely to appear as ordered without a deposit of bail and the court expressly states the reasons for the finding.”Tags: Driver's license suspension