San Bernardino continues to focus on traffic tickets to raise revenue

In tough economic times, the county of San Bernardino is ground zero for the bad economy in Southern California. Nowhere will you see more foreclosed and abandoned homes and businesses. In parts of downtown San Bernardino, and all over the high desert, it often feels like a ghost town. During the boom these communities flourished as people moved further and further from the job centers in LA, Ontario, and Orange County to find affordable housing. Now that times are hard, they are REALLY hard in the inland empire.

And times are apparently tough for the local government in San Bernardino as well. As the meth problem runs rampant, violent crimes go unsolved, and property crimes to abandoned homes and businesses thrive, the County seems to be more focused than ever on issuing traffic tickets. Just this weekend the San Bernardino police ran a “red light enforcement” program. While I’m certainly not advocating running red lights, I do think there are bigger problems for the police to solve in San Bernardino county. The only problem is, arresting criminals does not generate revenue, and issuing traffic citations does. According to the the SB Sun, this weekend’s enforcement program yielded 2 arrests and more importantly 53 tickets. With the average ticket now running close to $500, that’s $25,000 for the county. Better yet, the county does not have to provide appointed counsel to anyone facing only infractions (which covers most traffic citations). Icing on the cake? Traffic court is such a slow, inefficient, and painful process that most people don’t even bother to fight. National statistics show that less than 5% of the people who receive a ticket bother to fight it. Most people simply pay up.

Compare this with the financial benefits of arresting a few criminals. For a felony arrest the county would be liable for housing the alleged criminals until trial, which can take months or longer. The court would certainly appoint a lawyer to represent the accused, and each person charged would be entitled to their own lawyer. The District Attorney would have to prosecute the case, and both the prosecution and the defense will need investigators and expert witnesses, all funded by the county to insure a fair trial. Someone will need to drive them back and forth to court every few weeks so we need a few extra sheriff’s deputies and working transportation, and someone will need to run the courtroom for those hearings, so we need a judge, a bailiff, and a clerk or two. Under the new AB109 and re-alingment due to prison over crowding, the inmates could even become long term residents of a county facility after conviction.

n another shocking example of San Bernardino making a money grab by focusing on traffic ticket enforcement, the county continues to issue and collect aggressively on red light camera tickets. In neighboring LA county, the cameras are coming down, but in San Bernardino the cameras are staying up. I recently represented a man charged with running a red light and a mere 3 months after getting the ticket, the court had summarily found him guilty based on his failure to appear and began garnishing his wages for a fine of almost $1000. In order to fight this injustice I filed a a writ of exemption to stop the garnishment and the court agreed to stop the garnishment and set the case for trial, but what about all the residents of San Bernardino who can’t afford a lawyer? What if you never even got the letter about the red light camera in the mail? You could be driving around on a suspended license without even being aware and the next thing you know the county is pulling money out of your paycheck. When does it stop?

So we have a problem when law enforcement and the courts start to think like a business. When law enforcement is run for profit (or to simply keep the lights on in tough economic times), priorities are often blurred.   As expensive as it is for the county to prosecute violent crime, it must be done.   As tempting as it is to rake in cash by issuing more traffic tickets, good public policy requires a different approach.   Public Safety should demand that laws against serious and violent crimes be the first priority, but necessity is generating a new and misdirected focus on traffic tickets.