Let's red light fees for traffic violations

Joe Tarica is the senior editor for The Tribune.
Joe Tarica is the senior editor for The Tribune.

In an age of decriminalization, where new laws reduce punishment for nonviolent offenses and you can get busted with heroin and only face a misdemeanor charge, one common punishment remains vastly out of alignment with its “crime.”

That would be the Vehicle Code and traffic tickets, which have gone completely off the rails in a gross money grab that far exceeds the severity of the malfeasance, if you can even call it that.

A Tribune story by Matt Fountain a couple weeks ago detailed how only a fraction of the cost of a common ticket actually goes toward the citation itself, with the vast majority of the fine amounting to little more than fundraising for everyone and their cousin’s sister across the judicial industrial complex.

More than four-fifths, over $400, of a ticket for running a flashing red light in San Luis Obispo is only tangentially related to the particular violation itself.

Most everything beyond the base $85 — some 19 additional charges — is the government using drivers as an ATM for money that should be budgeted through other means.

Why should a red light offense finance four different DNA funds? Is the state now mandating blood tests from every offender and creating a database of known intersection scofflaws?

Another chunk of change from this infraction goes to courthouse construction. How about we budget for bricks and mortar by actually allocating general funds for that purpose? Most people who get traffic tickets probably never even set foot in a courthouse anyhow!

Then you’ve got charges for a fingerprint fund, emergency medical air transport, a San Luis Obispo base fee … and the list goes on and on.

One of the more opaque line items is the so-called “penalty assessment,” which accounts for $48.02 of this $499 ticket. To illustrate the absurdity of this charge, let’s drill down even further to see just what it’s all about.

Warning: Unintelligible legalese ahead.

I examined the specific penal code for this fine, and the first part says: “There shall be levied a state penalty in the amount of ten dollars ($10) for every ten dollars ($10), or part of ten dollars ($10), upon every fine, penalty, or forfeiture imposed and collected by the courts for all criminal offenses, including all offenses, except parking offenses as defined in subdivision (i) of Section 1463, involving a violation of a section of the Vehicle Code or any local ordinance adopted pursuant to the Vehicle Code.”

If you feel like you just fell down the rabbit hole and landed in the court of the Queen of Hearts, I understand your pain.

To translate, it sounds like it’s essentially doubling the base fine for this offense, along with some additional surcharge explained in equally jargon-y babble further in the code.

Beyond the fact that we seem to be tacking fines on top of fines, where does the money go?

Basically, it splits between the county and state. Some of it goes straight to the county general fund. Another portion goes to the state’s restitution fund, the payer of last resort for crime victims. A little handful of change is even doled out to the Department of Fish and Wildlife Preservation Fund.

“These moneys shall be used for the education or training of department employees, which fulfills a need consistent with the objectives of the Department of Fish and Wildlife,” the code says.

Unless you ran over a squirrel in the process, what that has to do with running a red light, I’ll never know.

Suffice it to say, this is one Medusa’s head of a fine, and some of the snakes are taking multiple bites, not just for themselves.

I doubt I’m the only one who finds this galling. It doesn’t feel right that so great a proportion of a simple offense be used for expenses that are tied to the greater good of our entire society.

The punishment should fit the crime — as it were — and in this case, it clearly doesn’t.

If it were up to me, not only would I excise many of these charges and distribute them across a more general form of taxation, I would go even further in our era of decriminalization when it comes to such minor traffic violations.

What if we created a system where everyone was entitled to a Vehicle Code warning, say once every three years, before getting hit with a fine?

Think about how this would change your impression of and interaction with the officer who pulls you over for a driving infraction.

If you hadn’t had any recent offenses, the interaction becomes friendly and nonthreatening. It’s a chance for a positive exchange between the public and law enforcement, which should be the goal more than ever these days.

An officer citing you for speeding, failing to use your seat belt or texting on your phone can use the opportunity for education instead of punishment.

I would like to see more of that mindset ingrained in law enforcement, especially when addressing the one type of infraction most likely to bring the public into contact with police.

In the already convoluted and often punitive land of government codes, a kindly reminder would go a lot further than “Off with your head!”

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