ON THE IMPLEMENTATION OF THE MANDATORY AUTOMOBILE INSURANCE LAW

Introduction

In response to questions from the judiciary and the Legislature, the Judicial Council has conducted a review of the mandatory automobile insurance law’s implementation. The council’s review includes a survey of the courts conducted by the council’s Traffic Advisory Committee and informal interviews with judicial officers and court administrators from across the state. This report to the Legislature provides an overview of the challenges the courts have faced in their efforts to implement the law and possible solutions to improve the courts’ ability to handle violations fairly and effectively. Some of the possible solutions are within the council’s ability to implement; others are clearly within the purview of the Legislature and are outlined below under "Implementation Challenges and Possible Solutions" for your consideration.

Background

Assembly Bill 650 (Speier); Stats. 1996, ch. 1126, the mandatory automobile insurance law, imposes a total penalty of $1,350 ($500 minimum fine, plus penalty assessments) for failure to provide proof of financial responsibility (that is, automobile insurance) upon request by a law enforcement officer during a traffic stop.

Since AB 650 took effect on January 1, 1997, the courts have reported that implementation of the law has posed significant challenges and has had a dramatic impact on court operations. In an effort to determine the impact, the Judicial Council conducted a survey in October 1997. The survey was sent to all court executive officers and court administrators in the state. Seventy-six courts responded. The following information is based on the survey results as well as correspondence and discussions with court administrators and judges.

Implementation Challenges and Possible Solutions

AB 650 included a statement that at least 28 percent of all vehicles on the roadways were out of compliance with California’s then-existing financial responsibility law. The courts have endeavored to implement AB 650 consistent with the Legislature’s goal of requiring drivers to have and carry proof of insurance. However, the courts have reported a variety of challenges in implementing the law for each of the following categories of violators:

Violators who have insurance but do not have proof at the time of the citation;

Violators who do not have insurance at the time of the citation but obtain it prior to their appearance in court; and

Violators who did not have insurance at the time of the citation and do not obtain it prior to their appearance in court.

The survey results show that traffic cases involving section 16028(a) violations are a significant part of the overall traffic caseload. With respect to this issue, 56 courts provided sufficient data for analysis. More than half (31 out of 56) of those respondents reported that over 15 percent of traffic infraction filings are section 16028(a) charges. Large urban courts, such as Los Angeles Municipal and Oakland-Piedmont-Emeryville Municipal, have recently reported that section 16028(a) violations make up at least 50 percent of their traffic court appearances. The violation is almost always cited in conjunction with one or more other traffic violations because law enforcement officers cannot stop a vehicle for the sole purpose of determining whether the vehicle is being driven without automobile insurance.

In addition, there are differences in outcomes among the courts because application of the law varies. While all judges have the authority to assess the full penalty, as Figure 1 shows, individual judges differ in their interpretation of the scope of their discretion under the mandatory insurance law to (1) reduce the fine, (2) suspend the fine, or (3) dismiss the charge.

 

Figure 1: Bench Officer Interpretation of Sentencing

Discretion in Section 16028(a) Violations

Discretion regarding fine

Responding courts

Reduce

Suspend

Dismiss

Number

%

!

!

!

27

38

!

!

"

11

17

!

"

!

4

6

"

!

!

3

6

!

"

"

10

10

"

!

"

3

4

"

"

!

2

4

"

"

"

9

15

Total:

69

100

! = Bench Officer believes that he or she has discretion.

" = Bench Officer believes that he or she does not have discretion.

Increased workload is a natural result of the change in the law. Courts are reporting longer lines at the traffic counters; an increase in written and telephone inquiries; and an increase in requests for court appearances, continuances, and arrangements for installment payment plans. As a result, courts have fewer resources to serve other members of the public adequately and fairly. Meanwhile, complaints from the public about the longer lines and waiting time have increased significantly. For example, one large urban court reports that customers who previously spent only two minutes to complete a transaction are now spending over an hour waiting in line. The same court also reported having to call the sheriff to handle irate customers.

The Legislature may wish to consider modifications to the law that would provide the courts with better tools to fairly and effectively administer justice by providing more options and additional incentives for drivers to purchase insurance. The challenges currently posed by the law and possible solutions are discussed below for each category of violators.

Category 1: Violators who had insurance but no proof at the time of the citation

Violators in category 1, who had insurance but no proof at the time of the citation pose relatively few implementation challenges compared to violators in categories 2 and 3, who did not have insurance at the time of the citation. Courts report that category 1 violators are a small percentage of the drivers charged with violating section 16028(a). Section 16028(e) allows category 1 violators to provide proof to the clerk of the court, either by mail or in person, that they had valid insurance at the time the notice to appear was issued, and once they do, further proceedings on the violation are dismissed. Thus, under current law, violators in this category are permitted to mail in proof of insurance to the court, along with an administrative fee. However, courts report that many drivers pay the fee in person.

Category 2: Violators who did not have insurance at the time of the citation but obtain it prior to their appearance in court

The survey asked each court to give a detailed illustration of how it adjudicates a "typical" Vehicle Code section 16028(a) violation when a driver shows that he or she obtained insurance subsequent to citation issuance. As indicated generally above, the survey showed that the amount of the fines assessed by judicial officers in these cases varies depending on the court’s opinion about the scope of its discretion and the circumstances of each case. For example, some courts reported that judges suspend the fine when the violator purchases insurance after the citation. Courts are also reporting that judges are allowing some violators to arrange for payment plans to pay the fine when, for example, they state that they are unable to pay for both the insurance and the fine.

To assist the courts in their ability to fairly and effectively administer the law and to provide additional incentives for drivers to purchase insurance, the Legislature may wish to consider the following changes to the law for those individuals who fall under category 2:

Reduce the fine to an amount to be determined by the Legislature for first-time offenders who purchase insurance after being cited but before the date on the notice to appear; and

Allow the violator to provide proof of subsequent insurance and receive the reduction of the fine administratively by submitting payment of the fine and written evidence of proof of financial responsibility by mail, in lieu of a court appearance.

These changes would promote the intent of the law by encouraging violators to purchase insurance; in addition, they would assist the courts in those cases where the violator appears unable to both pay the fine and purchase insurance. Moreover, the courts would be able to administer the law more uniformly if the law were changed to permit first-time offenders to pay a reduced fine in an amount to be determined by the Legislature upon providing proof of insurance obtained after the citation. Reducing the fine for first-time offenders and allowing the violator to submit payment and proof of insurance by mail, in lieu of a court appearance, will allow the court to handle cases more efficiently. It will reduce the number of requests for court appearances by violators who have obtained insurance after the time of the violation but before the court appearance date. This change would free up judges’ time to address other matters that arise under the mandatory insurance law, such as violators who cannot or refuse to purchase insurance.

Judges also have reported that some violators return to court on subsequent violations without insurance coverage. The court has no way of knowing if violators cancel their insurance after their first offense is resolved. There may be many ways to solve this problem. One possible solution that the Legislature may wish to consider is a procedure similar to what is currently required when an uninsured motorist is involved in an accident. The procedure would include the requirement that:

Upon conviction, first-time offenders must file and maintain with the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) a form SR-22, Proof of Financial Responsibility, for one year or an appropriate period to be determined by the Legislature. The first-time offender would be notified that failure to maintain proof of financial responsibility for a specified time will result in DMV suspension of the driver’s license for a period to be determined by the Legislature.

Category 3: Violators who did not have insurance at the time of the citation and do not obtain it prior to their court appearance

The survey asked each court to give a detailed illustration of how it adjudicates a "typical" Vehicle Code section 16028(a) violation when a driver does not show proof of insurance subsequent to citation issuance. The survey again showed that the amount of the fines assessed by judicial officers in these cases varies depending on the court’s opinion about the scope of its discretion and the circumstances of each case. Over half of the courts responding to the survey

reported that it is possible for a violator who has not purchased insurance to avoid the full fine by making a court appearance. However, many of the courts indicated that the violator would have to buy insurance within a specified time to avoid the full fine. Most responding courts also reported that they permit a combination of payment plans and community service for defendants with financial hardships. A small number reported that they consider suspending the fine because of financial hardship; a very small number indicated that they require all violators to pay the full fine and do not consider financial hardship as an issue.

Additionally, if a violator fails to pay the fine or complete community service after the court has made these arrangements, the court may issue a warrant for failure to pay or failure to obey a court order, assessing additional fines and impounding the driver’s license of the violator.

There are no changes recommended for category 3 violators; judges would continue to handle these matters on a case-by-case basis.

Other Administrative Solutions to Effectively Implement the Law

To assist the courts in effectively implementing the law, the Administrative Office of the Courts (AOC) is planning to distribute to all courts model administrative guidelines for court clerks that will restate and clarify procedures under section 16028(e). In a further effort to promote effective and consistent application of the mandatory insurance law, the AOC’s Education Division, the Center for Judicial Education and Research (CJER), is preparing a traffic benchguide for judicial officers. As part of this benchguide, CJER will include an explanation of the mandatory insurance law and the scope and limitations of judicial discretion under the law.

Further Study on Impact of Mandatory Insurance Law

By further assessing the resources needed to implement the mandatory insurance law the council can improve the ability of the courts to adjudicate violations without undue impact on court operations and administrative delays. The AOC plans to collect additional data and monitor workload to identify resources needed to adequately and fairly implement the law.

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