Courts Ban Pay-First Policy for Traffic Tickets

In response to mounting criticism that traffic courts unfairly punish poor people, the California Judicial Council adopted an emergency rule Monday that grants people access to trials without first paying a fine.

Reform advocates applauded the policy change but said it doesn’t go far enough, as millions of low-income Californians are denied a chance at a hearing if they miss their initial citation deadline.

Still, the ruling, offers some relief in a system that disproportionately targets the impoverished by demanding enormous fines for minor offenses and makes it difficult to contest them.

Critics have called the status quo a pay-to-play system, where courts deny access to a trial until the defendant pays the full bail amount—that's the price of the ticket—which can be hundreds of dollars. That means innocent drivers, or those with extenuating circumstances who can't afford the fees, can't present their case to a judge.

Monday's motion by judicial policymakers comes as Sacramento lawmakers gear up to vote on a bill that would lower the cost of late fees, offer payment plans and reinstate driver’s licenses suspended over nonpayment or missed court dates.

Since 2006, some 5 million Californians have lost their licenses for unpaid tickets, which have become increasingly expensive as the state keeps piling on fees. Losing a license, of course, makes it tough to pay those fines, as pointed out in an April report by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights.

“These suspensions make it harder for people to get and keep jobs, harm credit ratings and raise public safety concerns,” said the study titled, Not Just a Ferguson Problem: How Traffic Courts Drive Inequality in California. “Ultimately, they keep people in long cycles of poverty that are difficult if not impossible for many to overcome.”

Read the full ruling here.

Jennifer Wadsworth is the former news editor for San Jose Inside and Metro Silicon Valley. Follow her on Twitter at @jennwadsworth.


  1. Our nation’s largest court has already acted to put a lid on the out of control fines. The LA County court will not turn you in to the DMV if you don’t respond to a red light camera ticket issued by a city in the county. Or by the LA MTA. So, you don’t lose your license. Hard to believe? Search red light camera no consequence.

  2. > ,,.that traffic courts unfairly punish poor people…”

    > … millions of low-income Californians are denied a chance at a hearing …”

    > … disproportionately targets the impoverished…”

    It’s a grotesque system based on government greed which is unfair to ALL citizens – poor, rich, super-rich, and super duper rich.

    No need to make a class warfare issue out of it.

  3. What ever happened to equal Justice for all ? What happened innocent until proven guilty?

    Should we give a discount for murder also, or just traffic tickets?

    If a poor guy runs over you kid racing away from a drug buy, is your kid any less dead that if a rich girl ran your kid over while she was texting her boy friend ?

    Are there some statistics that more rich people per-capita violate traffic laws more that poor people do ?

    Sounds to me like class warfare perpetrated by a socialist government wanting to divide the house against it self.

    By the way I agree high taxes and fines levied by money grubbing governments at the behest of the government or special interest groups is way out of control.

  4. In the case of traffic tickets, what the law calls “bail” is really the amount of the fine that will be imposed if the defendant is found guilty of the traffic offense. So, in the case of traffic tickets the presumption of innocence appears to be non-existent, since one must pony up the fine, a.k.a. bail, in advance of a finding of guilt. Seems rather a bit unconstitutional, doesn’t it?

    On the other hand, I’d expect that if up front “bail” will no longer be required, the number of traffic scofflaws who fail to appear for trial in their matters will probably rise, since they’ll have no skin in the game. The hope of getting their “bail” returned upon an acquittal is a major incentive for most folks to appear in court to contest the injustice of the ticket they received. What a dilemma.

    One solution to that dilemma: people–poor, middle class, or obscenely wealthy—is simply to obey all traffic laws. Leave early enough that you don’t have to speed or run a red light, signal before changing lanes or turning (something 95% of cops do not do), eschew the Hollywood Stop. You wouldn’t get that pesky ticket and there would be one less issue for the poverty lobby to get its collective panties in a bunch about. Let’s face it folks, almost every one of us has committed multiple traffic violations and haven’t been caught. They number in the millions in California for diamond lane, running red lights, and non-hands-free phone talking alone. The overwhelming majority of tickets issued are deserved. Everyone who contests a traffic ticket takes a cop off the street for at least four hours. We don’t have the cops to spare to sit around listening to people whine to the traffic commissioner. So, rich or poor, next time you get cited, man up (that goes for you ladies, too), and just pay the fine. You know you deserved it. Or, as Chris Rock says in his incredibly funny video—OBEY THE LAW!!

    • “The hope of getting their “bail” returned upon an acquittal is a major incentive for most folks to appear in court.”

      More people will contest. More people will not appear. More police will be required to appear. More money waisted to have police officers sitting in court rather than patrolling the streets.

      I agree…Obey the Law. but that won’t happen.

  5. traffic judges sit on a bench with calculators to tally dollar fines, they are nothing more than prostitutes to a system, a clearing houses to rip hard working people of their money. Our judicial system is not based on morality or ethical principals, but rather on a money making scam laws.

  6. You have to fight for your rights and educate yourself enough before the trail. For example, nowadays most of the judges of the traffic court are either commissioners or temporary judge, one cannot presume that these commissioners or “Pro Terms ” will give you a fair trail since they represent the state and their salary comes from the law fund. If they do not find you guilty, they will lost their job. One has the right to ask for a California Article 6 section 21 judge, a duly elected judge, however if you do not ask for one, the court will presume that you consent your rights to be trail before a real judge. So the first step is to ask for an honorable elected judge, this is the critical step towards your case dismissal.

  7. i can’t introduce new evidence in san Jose for a parking violation i was charged with as there is no court for parking violations. no due process guaranteed by articles 5 & 14 of us constitution. there government is arbitrary & capricious, strictly totalitarian commies.

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