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California Chief Justice To Strip Rights From Motorists
Judicial branch seeks to ease its workload by eliminating procedural safeguards for motorists accused of traffic violations in California.

Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye
California motorists would have fewer legal rights when contesting traffic tickets under a proposal from state Supreme Court Chief Justice Tani G. Cantil-Sakauye. California's top judge last month ordered the Judicial Council to act on a recommendation calling for "civil adjudication" of all traffic tickets.

"I believe that the ultimate implementation of these recommendations is not only forward thinking and responsive to the real needs of Californians, but will also fundamentally improve their interactions and experiences with our justice system," the chief justice said in a statement.

The state Commission on the Future of California's Court System developed the plan, which was presented in terms of wide-ranging benefits. It would "free up" court and law enforcement resources and "simplify procedures" for defendants. Each year, the state courts deal with 4.1 million traffic tickets, accounting for 75 percent of their annual workload. To relieve judges of that substantial burden, however, motorists would have to give up their due process rights. At present, California is one of the few states that treats red light camera tickets under criminal, not civil, procedures.

"In-person trials for traffic infractions use the same evidentiary rules applicable to all criminal trials," the commission's report explained. "The trial judge may call and question witnesses and must ensure that the evidence is fully developed. The citing officer routinely gives a narrative of the events. The defendant may cross examine the officer."

Existing law places the burden of proving a vehicle owner's guilt on the state. This would change significantly under civil procedures, where it would be up to the ticket recipient to prove his innocence.

"The Futures Commission examined each level of burden of proof and concluded that 'a preponderance of the evidence' standard -- used in most civil cases -- is the appropriate standard for adjudicating minor traffic infractions under a civil model," the report explained.

The practical impact of the change in legal standards is that it would eliminate California's existing requirement that a red light camera photo clearly show the driver behind the wheel. American Traffic Solutions (ATS), the largest operator of red light camera systems in the United States, has been pushing for a shift to a no-points civil ticket system in states like California and Arizona because it would result in a 40 percent increase in the number of tickets the company could issue.

In 2001, for example, San Francisco missed out on over 20,000 citations that were tossed because of a "gender mismatch" or unclear photos of the driver. At the current price of a ticket, that would represent $10 million in revenue. The positive identification requirement has reduced the profitability of photo ticketing programs so much that over sixty cities statewide have abandoned them.

While the switch to relaxed rules of evidence would require action by the state legislature, the red light camera industry in the past has touted its ability to sway lawmakers into adopting legislation favoring camera companies over motorists.

The commission insists that sole purpose of the proposed change is to make things easier for members of the public, but existing law already gives traffic ticket recipients the option to skip a personal appearance in court through a trial by written declaration. Motorists who lose the written battle are entitled to bring their case to a judge in a new trial. The commission would eliminate this right as an "unnecessary procedural safeguard."

A copy of the commission's report is available in a 5mb PDF file at the source link below.

Source: PDF File Report to the Chief Justice (California Judicial Branch, 4/26/2017)

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