Sheared too close

Lawmakers are finally dealing with the unfair burden traffic citations put on the poor

The author is a retired community college instructor.

People who travel the Skyway know that road is a speed trap, with Highway Patrol cruisers lurking to ticket people who exceed the 55 mph limit. I’ve been driving that road a long time, and I’ve managed to avoid getting a ticket until recently. I wasn’t passing anyone, nor was I driving at an unsafe speed, but I did exceed the speed limit. So I got nailed, and I’m going to have to pay a fine I’d rather not pay.

I know I broke the law, but I also know that some traffic tickets are issued on the basis of bad luck, of being randomly selected out of a bunch of motorists, all of whom are driving slightly over the posted speed. And I know many municipalities leverage their operating costs with ticket quotas.

It sometimes feels like being part of a flock of sheep, with only unlucky ones being sheared, and even less lucky ones getting clipped much closer to the skin.

But a fine that merely annoys someone in my modestly comfortable income bracket can devastate some poor schmuck commuting to a job that pays little more than minimum wage, creating an unexpected budgetary dent that, in some cases, will require him (or her) to take out one of those usurious payday loans, thus starting a cycle of debt that can literally destroy lives, all for an infraction of traffic laws violated daily by luckier or more elusive multitudes.

So I was glad to see Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to alleviate the burden of traffic fines that hit poor people disproportionately hard. Brown’s amnesty program wouldn’t let low-income violators off the hook, but it would reduce their fines and allow those who lost their driver’s licenses due to the fines have them reinstated.

It wouldn’t apply to me, or to the ticket I recently got. That doesn’t trouble me. The punishment can’t fit the crime unless it also fits the criminal. Some of us “criminals” can pay our debt to society without significant hardship; others can’t.

Several European countries have income-based sliding scale formulas for traffic offenses. Gov. Brown’s effort to reduce the disproportionate punishment dished out to lower-income working people isn’t “liberalism run amok,” as one conservative commentator opined. It’s just a small victory for the losing side in the ongoing class war that’s been increasingly savage ever since Ronald Reagan was in the White House.