Judicial Council Mulls Making Traffic Tickets a Civil Matter

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – At Thursday’s meeting of California’s Judicial Council, Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye said she would prioritize improving resources for self-represented litigants, making some court services technology-based, and moving traffic cases out of criminal court over the next 10 years.

Cantil-Sakauye selected these issues from a list of recommendations she received from the Commission on the Future of California’s Court System, a group she appointed in 2015 to examine what the state’s courts should like in the future.

“The commission’s report in my view represents an important investment in the judicial branch and its future, and I suggest now we have the opportunity and expertise to begin to make that future a reality for our court users,” Cantil-Sakauye told the council.

Especially urgent, she noted, is the need to rethink how traffic cases are adjudicated.

“When making my decision on what to move forward first, I looked back. For the last several years, we’ve been concerned about how fines and fees unfairly penalize the poor. It’s a national problem,” she said.

Cantil-Sakauye directed the council’s traffic advisory committee to work with its criminal and civil law committee on how to make traffic cases civil. If successful, California would be the first state in the nation to adjudicate minor traffic infractions in civil court.

In their report, the commission – headed by California Supreme Court Justice Carol Corrigan – said formal procedures can slow down the process and lead to frustrated litigants.

“For many Californians, dealing with a traffic ticket may be their only contact with the court, and most will resolve their cases without the assistance of counsel. Criminal law procedures and safeguards, developed to apply to more complicated and serious prosecutions, may at times seem endlessly complicated and too formal to an unrepresented traffic defendant,” the commission’s report says. “Unnecessarily complex procedures also take additional time, meaning those who choose to challenge a citation may have to sit through slow-moving calendars just waiting for their case to be called.”

Cantil-Sakauye said her first job was in traffic court, and that she understood the fraught nature of criminal traffic proceedings.

“My first position as a judge was in traffic court, so I’m very familiar with the felt cars, the sandwich boards, and the emotion that happens in traffic court,” she said. “So I’m saying, how we can take minor traffic violations out of the criminal arena and have them decided in civil court, so the penalties, the consequences, maybe the emotions, won’t run so high. It will be reasonable, fair and we can look to making sure it’s not unduly burdensome on the poor.”

The chief justice also directed the committees to look into options for processing all phases of traffic infractions online.

California Supreme Court Justice Ming Chin, a member of the council, gave the thumbs up at this.

“I gave the chief the thumbs up for that because I’ve been doing that for about 10 years now, and I think that it is time for the judicial branch to get on board,” he said, noting Orange County has already implemented a digital traffic citations pilot program, and Placer County is starting to handle traffic tickets online. “If we continue that even through the civil process where witnesses can testify online about their traffic accident, it will help self-represented litigants, it will help simplify the civil process in our superior courts.”

Cantil-Sakauye said the committees should present proposed statutory and rule changes to the council, which will vote on how to proceed with the changes.