Ticket amnesty could benefit thousands

At least 300,000 Bay Area residents could be eligible for help under a California law that went into effect Thursday to cut old ticket fines and reinstate lost driver’s licenses, according to a legal service and advocacy group.

The state is allowing certain income-dependent reductions, ranging from 50 to 80 percent, on fines issued before Jan. 1, 2013. People who establish payment plans under this law can also apply to have their licenses reinstated.

More than 4 million Californians have lost their driver’s licenses because they didn’t pay a ticket. Many weren’t dodging responsibility but simply couldn’t afford the costs, said Gary Lewis, an attorney at Bay Area Legal Aid:

“These people aren’t just shrugging off their duty. … A $400 ticket is a lot when your monthly income isn’t (much more than that). People have been forced to make a choice between paying rent or paying a ticket.”

When unpaid, an infraction for violations like speeding or failing to come to a complete stop could multiply in cost over time and result in a suspended driver’s license. This can be devastating for a low-income individual, Lewis said.

Lewis told a story of a poor client from San Francisco he worked with earlier this year who wasn’t able to take advantage of truck driver training offered through the state’s Welfare to Work program because he had an long-unpaid traffic ticket he couldn’t afford:

“(This new law) is an acknowledgement that this system wasn’t working.”

Calling the situation a “hellhole of desperation,” Gov. Jerry Brown signed the amnesty legislation in June. It took effect today and will run until at least March 2017.

Lewis said:

“We’ve already gotten a dozen calls in the past 24 hours. … And we’re right at the very beginning of this … we’ve been working on these issues for awhile (at Bay Area Legal Aid), but we expect a significant increase.”

There are some limitations on the amnesty. People who owe victim restitution in a criminal case or have certain misdemeanor or felony warrants are not eligible for it.

Citations for drunken or reckless driving, as well as parking tickets, can’t be discounted under the law.

Any infraction filed in court, including being cited for having a taillight out, will be eligible, Lewis said. San Francisco Municipal Railway fare evasions and jaywalking also make the list.

Lewis said there are concerns about the law, such as the affordability of the payment plan and court fees, as well as the requirement that people who receive tickets in multiple counties must handle the tickets separately in each county.

However, Lewis added:

“We’re excited about this. There are lots of people that need to be assisted.”