SACRAMENTO — If you've gotten a speeding ticket or been cited for some other traffic violation lately, Gov. Jerry Brown feels your pain.
In two messages to lawmakers this week, Brown made clear his view that fines for traffic violations have become too high — to the point where they could soon force "people of modest means to choose jail time over paying sums they cannot afford."
The base fines for violations are not the issue. Rather, "penalty assessments" added in recent years have driven total fines to levels that now stretch the ability of working-class people to pay.
In Ventura County, for instance, the base fine for driving from 15 mph to 25 mph over the speed limit is $70. But the penalty assessment is $210, bringing the total amount a violator must pay to $280.
Brown used his strongest language on the issue in a message he attached to a bill by Assemblyman Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara, which he allowed to go into law this week without his signature. AB 412, which applies only to Santa Barbara County, re-enacts an expired $5 penalty assessment for every $10 in base fines for drunken driving or other offenses that involve driving while intoxicated.
Revenue from the assessment is used to help pay for emergency medical services in the county.
Williams celebrated the bill becoming law, noting that many emergency rooms in Santa Barbara have been shuttered in recent years. "It is essential for the safety of each of us to ensure that those that remain are adequately funded so that all of us can be sure to receive life-saving treatment in case of an emergency."
Brown acknowledged that various penalty assessments help pay for very worthwhile services, such as the DNA databank, courthouse security and pediatric trauma centers.
But there will come a point, he warned, when fines become disproportionately high.
"A $1,000 offense often becomes a $3,700 liability," he wrote. "Those who broke the law should be fairly punished for their transgressions, but not be subject to ever-increasing costs that are more properly the responsibility of the public at large."
Brown reiterated the point in a veto message accompanying his rejection of a bill that would have increased the base fine on those who are cited for driving while talking on a handheld cellphone.
"For people of ordinary means, current fines and penalty assessments should be sufficient deterrent," he wrote.
The bill would have increased the base fine for a first offense from $20 to $50, which would have raised the total cost for each offender from $208 to $328.
Penalty assessments increase dramatically, depending on the severity of the base fine for a given violation. For every $10 in base fines, a number of assessments are added, including a $10 state penalty, a $7 county penalty, a county-optional $5 penalty for court construction, a $2 penalty to support emergency medical services and a $1 penalty to fund the DNA databank.
In addition, the state levies a $20 flat fee on each criminal conviction to pay for court security costs. Finally, since 2002 the state has been levying a 20 percent surcharge on base fines.
"The higher the fine, the higher the penalty assessment," said Robert Sherman, assistant executive officer with the Ventura County Superior Court.
Williams said he understands Brown's concerns, but noted the penalty assessments involved in his bill apply only to the most serious driving violations. "With DUI's and driving while high, there's a pretty clear nexus to emergency room services," he said.
Williams, whose district includes Ventura and much of Oxnard, said majority Democrats in the Legislature find themselves forced to turn to traffic citations as a revenue source because Republicans will not consider any tax increase — for which a two-thirds majority vote is necessary.
"Republicans are not willing to vote for taxes on even marijuana or porn to fund any service, no matter how noble," he said.
Penalty assessments raise a significant amount of revenue for counties. Court records show that 136,000 traffic citations were issued in Ventura County last year, and 154,000 in 2009.