Amnesty Program – One Year Later

On June 24, 2015, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a one-time Amnesty Program for unpaid traffic and non-traffic infractions. The program began on October 1, 2015 and ends on March 21, 2017. This is the second traffic amnesty program our state has implemented in the past four years. This time the program offers more options to people regarding how to resolve their unpaid court-ordered debt and remove some of the negative impacts of unresolved fines and fees.

The Amnesty Program comes at a time of increased national interest regarding the adverse impacts that rising court-ordered fines and fees can have on the poor in our country. Last year, a coalition of legal aid and civil rights organizations issued a report entitled “Not Just a Ferguson Problem: How Traffic Courts Drive Inequality in California.” That report examined how the complicated fines and fees structure for infractions that has been put in place by the Legislature often results in large fines for relatively minor offenses. If a person does not appear in court or fails to timely pay the fine, the consequence is often a license suspension. According to the report, this has resulted in approximately 4 million licenses being suspended statewide and unpaid court-ordered debt of $10 billion. In part, the current Amnesty Program is an effort to address these issues.

There are two groups of people who can participate in the current Amnesty Program:

  • Persons with unpaid tickets whose fines were originally due to be paid on or before January 1, 2013 and who had not made a payment after September 30, 2015, are potentially eligible to have both their debt reduced by 50 or 80 percent depending on income and their driver’s license reinstated.
  • Persons who made a payment after September 30, 2015 on a ticket are not eligible for a reduction for that ticket, but may be eligible to have their driver’s license reinstated if they are in good standing on a payment plan with a comprehensive collection program.

The Amnesty Program has been extremely popular. During the first six months of the Amnesty Program, the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) mailed 32 million amnesty announcement inserts to California drivers. The Judicial Council logged approximately 693,000 unique visitors to its amnesty website. During that time, almost 133,000 delinquent infraction and misdemeanor accounts were resolved through the Amnesty Program. Also, over 104,000 DMV holds on licenses were requested to be lifted. Locally, while most people in Contra Costa County sign-up for the program over the telephone, this can also be done at the court, and there is typically a long line of people at the window in the Wakefield Taylor Courthouse. In our county alone, more than 7,278 people have received some type of relief through amnesty as of August 31, 2016.

While amnesty has helped people facing long-standing court-ordered debt and license suspensions, it also has resulted in a loss of revenue to the courts and other government agencies that have been funded through collection of fines, fees and assessments. Among various agencies impacted by these drops in funds, many superior courts have experienced sharp declines in operating funds due to reduced fine and fee collections. The state has so far not reimbursed the courts for any of this loss in revenue. As we move away from a system where government services are funded by ticket revenue, it will be important to find new and better funding methods in order to avoid service reductions.

While the Amnesty Program enters into its final months and will soon end, California courts continue to look for ways to assist people in understanding their responsibilities and rights when receiving a citation. In our court, we have developed online educational materials and revised our traffic notices to better explain in plain language, the processes for contesting, appealing, and paying fines and fees. At the state level, meanwhile, there are also a variety of proposals to include a person’s ability to pay as a consideration when imposing fines and when suspending a driver’s license for failure to pay fines. Consequently, though the Amnesty Program is coming to an end, many changes to how traffic fines and fees are administered appear more permanent.