California bill would prevent driver's license suspensions for minor offenses

By Keith Goble, Land Line state legislative editor | 7/22/2016

An effort nearing passage at the California statehouse would create a traffic violation amnesty program.

The Assembly Public Safety Committee voted 5-2 to approve a bill that addresses minor driving violations in the state that can result in fines and fees exceeding several hundred dollars. Specifically, the bill would stop automatic suspensions of driver’s licenses, including commercial driver’s licenses, for people who fail to pay fines or fail to appear in court for minor traffic offenses.

Sen. Bob Hertzberg, D-Van Nuys, said his bill would end an overly harsh punishment that does not fit the offense. He adds that the offense sends “many people of modest means into a downward spiral” that can result in losing a job or even ending up in jail.

There are 612,000 Californians with a suspended driver’s license due to failure to appear or failure to pay on traffic tickets, according to the California Department of Motor Vehicles.

“It is a sad fact that we have essentially created the modern equivalent of debtors’ prison ...,” Hertzberg said in prepared remarks. “We must restore common sense to our justice system.”

Opponents, including the California State Association of Counties, say the bill’s provisions eliminate any incentive for individuals to pay outstanding debt for traffic violations they received and failed to pay.

Offenses involving reckless driving or driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs would not be eligible for the amnesty program.

The bill, SB881, awaits clearance from the Assembly Appropriations Committee to go to the Assembly floor. If approved there, it would move back to the Senate for approval of changes before heading to the governor’s desk.

Hertzberg’s bill is a follow-up to his 2015 law and Gov. Jerry Brown’s related budget proposal that established a temporary traffic amnesty program. The program in place since last October allows people to talk to a judge before paying fines, restores driver’s licenses to those with a payment plan, and reduces certain fee debts by taking a person’s income into account.

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