(CN) – Drivers in California are getting fewer citations, forcing state and county programs to reconfigure an unsustainable funding model that pulls revenue from citation fees, many of which are left unpaid by drivers struggling with “significant financial burden,” according to a state audit released Thursday.
The California State Auditor said the numerous state and county programs funded by traffic citation fees must develop sustainable funding models that don’t rely on extracting fees, which often go unpaid, from drivers.
More than $450 million is generated annually from penalties and fees imposed on drivers for both criminal and traffic violations. Funds are used to support traffic courts, DNA testing operations and emergency medical support services on California roads and highways.
The once-steady revenue stream has decreased from 39 percent to 25 percent over the last three years as the number of criminal citations filed has decreased, the California State Auditor said in its report.
Many drivers, especially low-income drivers, are struggling to pay penalty fees. Additional fines are also added for late payments, compounding their problems.
Traffic infractions that carry a base fine of $35 can cost an individual $237 after penalties and fees are included. Until recently, drivers who did not pay their fines and penalties also had their licenses suspended.
The downward trend means less revenue in the coming years for programs.
The CSA audit also said funding for state and county programs through penalties and fees from criminal and traffic violations has been inconsistent and “lacks a systematic strategy.” The report cited a “piecemeal fashion” in which funds were distributed.
Pending legislation would address the significant costs to drivers struggling with unpaid fees by requiring judges to reduce the amount they must pay in certain cases.
The report said the legislation, while providing relief to low-income drivers, could also further reduce revenue from fees which state programs rely on.
The report recommends eliminating the use of penalty and fee revenue as funding sources for state and county programs.
“The Legislature should reconsider the entire penalty and fee structure (criminal and traffic),” the report said. “Decide whether to adjust or eliminate penalty and fee amounts, and whether to distribute the resulting revenue differently.”
Revenue is often collected through citations that are unrelated to the needs of the state and county services, the report said.
When someone is cited for an offense, such as failing to stop at a stop sign, they will pay a penalty or fee that may support the courts or a traffic-related program. Drivers may also pay other penalties that fund emergency medical air transportation and DNA identification services, “neither of which is related to the failure to stop except in very specific circumstances,” the auditor said.
State laws imposing penalties and fees apply to both criminal and traffic citations.
Traffic cases represented the large majority, approximately 82 percent on average, of all criminal case filings in the state from 2014 to 2016.
Research has shown that California’s traffic fines are among the highest in the nation.
A report from the State’s Legislative Analyst’s Office said in 2016, California’s fines and fees from common traffic offenses were high compared to 33 other states.