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Relief for drivers who can't afford traffic fines

Some California drivers who face fines for traffic violations might soon have another alternative to forking over the money. Advocates for motorists in Solano County have reached a settlement with the Superior Court that would allow people who owe fines for traffic tickets they can't afford to pay to pay in installments or request community service instead of a fine.

A state law that became effective on July 1 prohibits courts from suspending the driver's license of anyone who cannot afford to pay a fine. The Solano County settlement means that now, drivers in the county will be informed in writing of affordable alternatives. In order to qualify for an alternative, proof must be given of an inability to pay.

Courts often use traffic fines to fill budget gaps, but the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights says that doing that is a conflict of interest. California has higher fines and fees for traffic tickets than any other state. Basing fines on the driver's ability to pay could become the law statewide. A proposal from California's chief justice would move some traffic violations to civil court. That could end criminal punishment for violations like running a red light, changing lanes without signaling and speeding.

When people can afford to pay a traffic ticket, they might think that paying without argument is the easiest way to handle the situation. But paying a traffic ticket is an admission of guilt. Misdemeanors like traffic citations go on a person's record and can cause problems in the future. If California should eliminate criminal charges for some traffic violations, such charges would not go on someone's criminal record but would still impact their driving record. Fighting a traffic violation charge could result in the charge being dropped and the driver's record being kept clear.

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