This column appeared first in the Los Angeles and San Francisco Daily Journal.
My colleague Matt Smith recently observed that Huntington Beach is following the model of Ferguson, Missouri: raising fines on misdemeanors in order to generate more revenue for a cash-strapped city. The Department of Justice found that strategy was a contributing factor to rioting that followed the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson on August 9, 2014.
But more punishing than the fines themselves is the schedule of fees associated with each fine. In Amador County, in the Sierra Nevada just east of Sacramento, the superior court notes that its practice is to hit the guilty with a “penalty assessment” – $26 “for every $10 of the base fine amount or portion thereof as set forth by the California State Legislature.” The court helpfully directs unbelievers to Penal Code 1464 and Government Codes 76000, 70372, 76104.6, 76104.7 and 76000.5.
That means the penalties associated with misdemeanor fines are far more expensive than the fines themselves. It gets worse: Counties can even – and do – add additional penalties.
The penalties imposed by state legislators are remarkable for their randomness. There’s money for the DNA Identification Fund and the State General Fund. The state gets more money from the penalties – for its “Penalty Fund,” its “State Court Facilities Fund” and money for “Building/Maintenance for Courts.” Some of the money pays for court security and a big chunk goes to court automation and city funds. There’s even money for the Department of Motor Vehicles. The Amador court shows you how, through the magic of the state legislature, your $25 jaywalking ticket becomes a $193 fine.
The Orange County Superior Court follows the same formula, but adds bonus penalties for lawbreakers. In addition to the state menu, OC adds fees to fund Emergency Medical Air Transport, Emergency Medical Services, and a fee “to fund Night Court operations.” That, Orange County says, is how a $35 speeding ticket becomes a $238 fine.
The bottom line: Keep breaking the law, your government needs the money.
Matt guessed the Ferguson model will do nothing to lubricate relations between police and Huntington Beach residents. In fact, it places cops between cash-hungry government officials and residents. Last month, as the Orange County Register reported, the City Council approved a plan to hire a city prosecutor to handle all those tickets.
“A significant number of misdemeanors go unprosecuted,” City Attorney Michael Gates told the Register, adding that the prosecutor will “add a lot of teeth to our laws.”
“There will be a whole class of crimes that will now be prosecuted where the DA may not have gotten to them,” Gates said. “We will prosecute every one of them until conviction.”
Huntington Beach isn’t alone, of course. All across California, pressed by the rising costs associated with government employees, cities are following Ferguson – increasing government regulation of human activity and then monetizing infractions, turning citizens into a crop harvested for its cash. When the citizens can’t pay up, they are torn from their homes and workplaces to serve time – a process that sounds more like Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables than Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America. The guilty often lose their jobs and families. In the end, their communities lose productive individuals.
“It’s a vicious cycle that hits people with limited income especially hard,” says Hieu Vu, a criminal defense attorney in Orange County. “If you can’t pay your traffic ticket, the court suspends your license. But you have to work so you end up driving with a suspended license. Eventually you get pulled over by the police and have your car taken away for 30 days and end up having to pay the impound fee of over a thousand dollars – and you now face the new criminal charge of driving on a suspended license.”
If you can’t afford to pay, you can agree to alternative community service, like picking up trash on freeway shoulders for Caltrans. Even that has its perils. Paul William Nguyen, an Orange County criminal defense attorney with Shield Litigation, recalls a single mother “sentenced to 10 days of Caltrans, in lieu of 10 days of jail for a minor driving offense.
“This poor woman and her toddler came to court on the deadline date and asked the judge for a short extension – she had completed eight out of the 10 days of Caltrans and indicated that she was a single mother and the sole breadwinner in her family.
“The judge was not moved,” Nguyen says. The woman had made a contract, the judge said, and he expected her to honor it. He sentenced her to “the whole 10-day jail sentence and remanded her immediately. Her toddler was ripped out of her arms and she was handcuffed and transported to jail.”
“While she was ‘honoring’ her agreement,” Nguyen says, “her child was handed over to Social Services.”
Straitjacketed by constantly rising public employee compensation, local officials are raising taxes, fees and fines. In Ferguson, it took only one substantial conflict – the shooting of Michael Brown – to set off the chaos that followed. No right-thinking person supports the rioters; no right-thinking person can ignore the political context in which that riot took place.
Will Swaim is the VP of Communications at the California Policy Center.