Fact Check: Anatomy of a Traffic Ticket in California

How is the amount determined and where does the money go?

The calculation for a traffic ticket in California, and determining where the money goes once collected, is complex. The cost of a traffic ticket includes a base fine amount plus penalty assessments and fees created by the Legislature to fund specific state and local activities.


The Base Fine
The Judicial Council sets the standard bail amount and base fine for traffic tickets when the Legislature has not set a mandatory base fine. Typically, the base fine for a traffic violation is about 25 to 35 percent of the maximum fine allowed by statute. In general, the base fine portion of traffic tickets has not changed or increased for nearly 20 years. The base fine is collected for, and distributed to, either the local government or local government and county.

The increase in the total cost of a traffic ticket—above the base fine—in California over the last 20 years is primarily the result of the addition of mandatory penalty assessments and fees created by the Legislature and required by statute. In addition, when a person appears in court to contest a ticket, the base fine imposed at sentencing may be reduced or increased within the statutory limits by a judicial officer when deciding the case.

Penalties and Fees
Penalty assessments are calculated from the base fine for the traffic ticket and are part of the punishment that is imposed for the violation. The penalties collected are distributed to many different city, county, and state funds established by the local government and Legislature for activities such as DNA collection in criminal cases, emergency medical services, local criminal justice facilities, emergency medical air transportation, and court facility maintenance and construction. Unlike penalties, any state or local fees added to the base fine for traffic tickets are non-punitive and are imposed to pay for costs of operating the justice system.

Special Distribution
The standard distribution of money collected for a traffic ticket can be changed in several circumstances. For example, if a case is approved for traffic violator school, the distribution of the money that is collected changes significantly, with a majority of the money being distributed to the county. Also, specific violations, such as running a red light, can have special statutory distributions that differ from the standard calculation. Moreover, during a state budget crisis, the Legislature may borrow from or divert the fees collected for a specific use, such as court construction, to the State General Fund.

Task Force to Study Court-Ordered Fines, Penalties, and Fees
The Legislature has authorized the Judicial Council—under Penal Code section 1463.02—to create a task force to study and report on ways to simplify and improve the process for collection and distribution of court-ordered debt such as fines, penalties, and fees for traffic tickets. The council’s Court-Ordered Debt Task Force is in the process of evaluating what recommendations may be made to the Legislature to improve the process.

Examples of Cost and Distribution of Typical Traffic Tickets
The chart below lists three examples of the cost and distribution of a typical traffic ticket, including the base fine, penalties, and fees. The chart provides information on a typical ticket for faulty equipment ($25), a moving violation ($35), and driving more than 25 MPH over the speed limit ($100).

 
2013 Traffic Infraction Bail Examples
  Faulty Equipment Moving Violation Over Limit > 25 MPH
Base Fine $25.00 $35.00 $100.00
Penalty Assess.  (PA) for every $10 or part of $10 of Base Fine State PA ($10) 30.00 40.00 100.00
County PA (up to $7) 21.00 28.00 70.00
Emergency Medical Services PA ($2) 6.00 8.00 20.00
DNA Fund PA ($5) 15.00 20.00 50.00
Court Facilities PA ($5) 15.00 20.00 50.00
Emergency Medical Air Transportation PA 4.00 4.00 4.00
State Surcharge (20% of Base Fine) 5.00 7.00 20.00
Fine and Penalty Subtotal $121.00 $162.00 $414.00
Court Operations Fee ($40) 40.00 40.00 40.00
Criminal Conviction Fee ($35) 35.00 35.00 35.00
Night Court Fee 1.00 1.00 1.00
Total $197.00 $238.00 $490.00

Comprehensive Uniform Bail and Penalty Schedules for the current year and previous years are posted here.

October 2013

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