Liberty and Traffic Courts


During my 25 years as a trial court judge I was able to observe the continual devolution of the traffic courts from an emphasis upon safety on our streets and highways to a revenue-gathering machine. Shame on us all! In California this has, among other things, taken the form of “penalty assessments.” These are payments that cannot be waived or excused by the judges, and are added on to all traffic fines for such things as courthouse security, the law library fund and paying for child care services at the courthouse. All of these are important, but today in Orange County, a $100 fine will carry an additional $390 in penalty assessments, and this really throws a large additional burden upon people who are mostly on the low end of the economic scale. In other words, Liberty as a function of basic fairness is being jeopardized.

Another example of Liberty at risk is the California Highway Patrol’s 11-99 Foundation which, at the very least, gives the appearance of Traffic Justice for Sale. The charity itself is worthwhile, since it assists families of injured and deceased CHP officers. The problem comes with the “benefits of membership.” As an example, for a $2,500 donation, the donor receives a plaque, license plate frame that says “Member, CHP 11-99 Foundation,” and a wallet with a badge placed just opposite where one’s driver’s license would be carried. The inescapable message this brings is favoritism on the highway for people who have made donations. Why otherwise would these articles be provided? All judges know that we are required to provide two important services to the public: justice, and also of equal importance, the appearance of justice. But these two situations are working against both principles, and there is nothing that judges can do about them. Liberty requires better!

Judge Jim Gray (Ret.)