Following state reforms aimed at reducing traffic ticket late fees, many Bay Area counties have eliminated these fees, and it is time for Southern California counties to follow their example. These traffic ticket late fees unfairly burden low-income drivers without meaningfully improving public safety.
Ten California counties, including San Francisco and San Mateo, recently eliminated late fees for unpaid traffic tickets. The move to eliminate late fees in San Mateo County is the result of a settlement in a lawsuit filed by The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area, the ACLU Foundation of Northern California, and Bay Area Legal Aid. The groups claim that the San Mateo Superior Court imposed late fees on 80,000 low-income residents, raising over $9 million in revenue in the past three years alone.
The San Mateo settlement comes on the heels of state legislative reforms targeting the abuse of traffic ticket late fees. Last year, the California legislature passed, and Gov. Gavin Newsom signed, Assembly Bill 199, which lowered the maximum late fee from $300 to $100. All late fees imposed before July 1, 2022, were eliminated, resulting in an estimated $500 million in court debt relief to Californians. The state law also ensures that the revenue from late fees is sent to the state general fund rather than being used to fund courts. The bill’s reforms were a major step in the right direction, but late fees still create significant burdens for far too many Californians.
A $100 late fee may not seem like much, but traffic ticket costs add up fast in California. For example, in Orange County, the base fine for going 15 miles per hour over the speed limit is just $35. But that total speeding ticket amount can balloon to $226 after a host of assessments, fees, and surcharges are added.
High ticket costs disproportionately burden low-income drivers. According to surveys by the U.S. Federal Reserve, approximately one-third of American adults would struggle to afford an unexpected $400 expense without taking on debt or selling their possessions. Late fees, designed to encourage payment, are ineffective when the underlying cause of non-payment is financial hardship. Alternative mechanisms, such as payment plans or withholding tax returns, may be more effective in ensuring that drivers can fulfill their obligations without facing excessive financial burdens.
Importantly, imposing late fees for unpaid traffic tickets does little to improve public safety. While revenue from traffic tickets is used to fund various government services, including local courts, government reliance on these revenues creates poor incentives that can undermine public safety. Empirical research has found that local governments that derive a more significant portion of their budgets from fines and fees tend to have lower clearance rates for violent and property crimes.
Instead of improving public safety, research suggests that traffic enforcement may be motivated by fiscal pressures. A recent peer-reviewed study found that California counties’ per capita traffic fine revenue increased after-tax revenue losses but did not decrease after-tax revenue gains. Another similar study found that county sheriff’s deputies in California generated more traffic ticket revenue after budget cuts.
These research findings suggest that when local governments rely on law enforcement to raise revenue, resources are allocated toward revenue-generating activities rather than addressing more serious crimes and concerns. In fact, a recent report from Catalyst California and the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California found that the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department wastes “millions of dollars conducting pretextual stops for minor traffic violations that do not improve roadway safety.”
California continues to make meaningful progress toward addressing the potential pitfalls of government fines and fees. Last year’s legislative reforms were a significant step in the right direction, but late fees continue to burden many low-income Californians while exacerbating the problems of revenue-oriented policing. More counties should eliminate late fees and consider alternative mechanisms for resolving outstanding court debts.
This commentary originally appeared in The Orange County Register.