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New law may offer relief for lower-income Californians with traffic ticket debts

Californians facing mounting debts from traffic tickets may find relief in new law 02:59

OAKLAND – No one likes getting a traffic ticket, and the fees attached to it can add up quickly. A new state law took effect on July 1st that can help those buried under a mountain of debt from traffic violations.

Back when Salena Silva was 18-years-old, she was caught with an open container in her car.

Silva wasn't working so she didn't have the money to pay the fine.

"I didn't really pay much attention to it," she told KPIX 5, "but I guess, after all these years passed, it's really piled up. Like, thousands of dollars."

Now a thirty-something single mother and caregiver, Silva owed about $8,000 to the courts, much of it from late charges called "civil assessment fees."

For example, in the case of a $35 fine for running a stop sign, adding normal court fees and a civil assessment can increase the cost to $538.

Civil rights attorney Rio Scharf said California has some of the highest traffic court fees in the nation and many of them are imposed, not as punishment, but to raise funds for the court system.

"These civil assessments were raising about $100 million a year for the courts," Scharf told KPIX 5. "And they were raising that money directly from lower-income Californians, those who were most likely to miss a payment date."

Scharf is part of a Bay Area law group, called the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights, who were fighting the fees in Sacramento.

Last month, AB 199 went into effect, cancelling all back debt for civil assessments. The law also lowers future civil assessments to $100 and sends that money directly to the state, so county courts won't be tempted to impose fees just to raise revenue.

"We estimate that the debt relief of AB 199 will result in the discharge of over $500 million of debt for more than a million Californians," Scharf said.

That's good news for Silva--if she only knew about it. But no one had told her.

It's been a month now, but few who owe money even know about the debt forgiveness.

Scharf said some courts are continuing to collect the civil assessment fees when they are paid. He said he understands why the courts may be slow to react; the bill was only signed on June 30th and went into effect the next day.

The attorney told KPIX 5 that courts now have an obligation to change their website information, stop collecting the fees, and refund any civil assessments paid since July 1st.  And give people like Silva a chance to put their past mistakes in the rear-view mirror.

"It's hard for people that's in poverty to care, because they really have nothing to look forward to, you know?" she said. "It's messed up."

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