The Santa Monica Police Department is protesting a clause in a new state law that requires the city to pay $20 for each citation it issues to motorists who fail to carry liability insurance, regardless of whether a conviction is obtained.
The clause cost the city nearly $20,000 in August alone, according to city Finance Director Mike Dennis. The city paid another $6,000 for citations on which it did collect fines from motorists who did not have insurance.
Under the new law, which went into effect July 1, any motorist ticketed for any violation may be asked for evidence of liability insurance. Anyone not carrying insurance is subject to a fine of up to $240 (the maximum applies when the primary violation is drunk driving) plus a court surcharge of about 70%, depending on the jurisdiction.
After the court sends the motorist a notice of bail for the primary offense and the lack of insurance, the insurance citation is dismissed if the motorist returns proof that he was insured at the time of citation.
But the city is required to pay $10 to the county to defray court costs and $10 to the state's general fund for each citation issued, whether or not the ticket results in a conviction.
Sgt. John Miehle said about 80% of the citations are dismissed when motorists supply the court with proof of insurance or financial responsibility.
Although other jurisdictions have been issuing warnings during a "break-in" period to get motorists used to the new law, Miehle said Santa Monica began "vigorous enforcement" on July 1.
"The bad part is that the city (also) gets hit for any violations written in the city by the Highway Patrol," he added. "They issued a lot of citations when they had a task force about one month ago working the freeways to bring the speed down."
Dennis said that during August, 3,000 drivers were cited for moving violations in Santa Monica, 1,300 of whom also were cited because they could not produce evidence of insurance or financial responsibility.
About 1,000 subsequently showed the required proof and the remaining 300 were convicted and assessed $156 fines, he said. The fines consist of $75 mandated by the vehicle code, $25 that goes to courthouse construction and $56 for state and county assessments, said Toby Menin, city collections manager.
The city came out ahead financially, but Dennis said that officials believe it is unfair for Santa Monica to have to pay $20 fees on the 1,000 tickets that were dismissed.
In a letter to state officials, Miehle said the Police Department has expressed support for a bill (SB 351) introduced by Sen. Alan Robbins (D-Van Nuys) that would limit the city's responsibility to the amount collected in fines and forfeitures.
Chief James Keane said the department's letter will be sent to state officials once it has been reviewed by the city manager.
Other police agencies are concerned about the financial responsibility law fees, but have not yet encountered severe problems because they have given motorists a break-in period.
Lt. Dan Cooke, press spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Department, said the department waited until Oct. 1 to begin enforcement, alklowing officers time to give warnings to motorists.
Not a Great Problem
Capt. Lars Sederling of the Culver City Police Department said the law has not been a great problem because "we don't run into that many people who don't have insurance."
But City Atty. Burt Glennon of Culver City said that fees associated with the new law may act as a "disincentive" to enforcement. He said that because the city could face a financial loss, "officers have to be cautious in writing citations that might not result in convictions."
Lt. Bill Hunt of the Beverly Hills Police Department said that its enforcement began Aug. 1. The city has not received a bill for the fees.
Sgt. Mark Lunn, public affairs coordinator for the California Highway Patrol, said his agency started enforcement July 1.
"We normally give a 60-day conditioning period when a new law is passed," he said. "However, this has been talked about for so long, since the beginning of the year, that the commissioner took the position that the 60-day period was not necessary. It was felt that delay would cause confusion and noncompliance."