A traffic fine is never just a fine in California.
In addition to the monetary penalty and points on a license, the state can assess fees for a court building fund, driver education, and other public needs.
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On top of all that, there’s a state 20% surcharge.
“All sides agree this tax is unjust, indefensible, and long overdue for repeal.” — Assemblyman Adam Gray
“During a time of fiscal uncertainty nearly two decades ago, the state imposed a 20% tax on traffic tickets and devoted the funding to prop up the General Fund,” Gray said in a news release Friday morning. “At the time, the state promised this was a temporary measure, but to the surprise of no one eventually made the tax permanent just a few years later.”
Gray is introducing AB 1980 which would repeal the 20% surcharge.
Fines Add Up
For example, on a $35 fine for rolling through a stop sign, an extra $7 is automatically tacked on by the state. Other state and local penalties further inflate the total.
The 20% surcharge went on the books in 2002. A 2015 editorial in the Los Angeles Times estimated that 80% of the total traffic fine is above the base fine.
A similar bill from Gray, AB 1348, passed the Assembly Public Safety Committee last year but died in the Assembly Appropriations Committee.
An Assembly staff analysis of last year’s bill estimated the surcharge pumps about $40 million a year into the General Fund.
State Auditor Blasts Fee Structure
According to Gray, the state auditor recommends eliminating the surcharge. His bill also has the support of law enforcement groups and the ACLU.
In a 2017 report, State Auditor Elaine Howe criticized the fee.
“California’s current approach to funding state and county programs through penalties and fees from criminal and traffic violations has proven problematic both for the programs that rely on those funds and for drivers who receive costly citations,” Howe wrote.
Howe went on to say the system places an unfair burden on low-income drivers.
“All sides agree this tax is unjust, indefensible, and long overdue for repeal,” Gray said.
Gabriel Brickey, running unopposed for Fresno County judge on the March ballot, says he’s likely to work with what the law says when imposing fines.
“There is legislation behind each (court fee with) some thought and consideration. … But obviously, the judge most of the time has the ultimate discretion to impose whatever sentence he or she feels appropriate in the case. I believe I would do the same,” Brickey said.