Faced with an embarrassing list of scofflaws and no jail in which to incarcerate them, the County Board of Supervisors on Wednesday declared a three-month amnesty for people who owe an estimated 250,000 delinquent fines for traffic violations.
At the same time, the board took new steps against the 450,000 other violators with outstanding warrants, unpaid fines and overdue parking tickets, moving to impound their cars, confiscate their tax refunds, deny them new vehicle registrations and driver's licenses, and print their names in newspapers.
The estimated 700,000 outstanding warrants are "a problem that has troubled me for some time, because it involves disrespect for the criminal justice system and disrespect for the law," said Supervisor Susan Golding, who proposed the package Wednesday as an emergency measure dubbed "Operation: Pay Up."
Golding also said that she hoped to recoup some of the estimated $14 million owed to cities, the county and the state from approximately 47,000 unpaid court-ordered fines.
The ever-growing mountain of unserved warrants has frustrated law enforcement and elected officials, who often protest that the county's overcrowded jails allow misdemeanor arrestees to thumb their noses at such citations, knowing that there is little chance they will be locked up.
The county has no exact breakdown of the warrants, but County Marshal Michael Sgobba said Wednesday that about 250,000 are for traffic violations; 220,000 are bench warrants issued by judges for defendants who failed to appear in court; 85,000 to 90,000 are citations for failing to pay trolley fares; 47,000 are for unpaid adjudicated fines and 12,000 are for felony crimes. The remainder are for a variety of offenses.
Seven deputy marshals are working full time to serve the felony warrants and 40 deputies attempt to serve the misdemeanor warrants when the opportunity arises. In some cases, people with multiple warrants for failure to appear in court have been brought in and locked up, Sgobba.
The board's 3-0 vote, with Supervisors John MacDonald and Leon Williams absent, makes San Diego the first county in the state to adopt the traffic violation amnesty authorized by new state legislation approved last fall, Deputy Chief Administrative Officer June Komar said.
Under its provisions, people with minor traffic violations outstanding since April 1, 1991, would pay the Municipal Court just 70% of the fine they owe. They would not be charged late fees or face criminal penalties. The three month amnesty, which does not cover parking tickets, would take effect Feb. 1 and run through April 30.
Golding and her aides had no estimate of how much revenue the amnesty could yield. All of the money would go to the state, costing the county, its cities and special districts their shares of the fine revenue. The county, which must pay collection costs, gets just 3% of that revenue, however.
San Diego City Manager Jack McGrory said the city supports the concept of an amnesty to clear up the monumental backlog of outstanding warrants, but objected to the state keeping all of the proceeds.
At the request of several city councilmen, including Ron Roberts, Golding's rival in the San Diego mayor's race, the city had previously proposed the idea of an amnesty to the county, McGrory said.
Under the plan adopted Wednesday, the county would take advantage of broader powers authorized by the state legislation. For example, it would ask the state Department of Motor Vehicles to refuse to renew vehicle registrations for owners who have violated written promises to appear in court or pay court-ordered fines for traffic violations.
Driver's licenses would be withheld for people who have violated promises to appear in court or pay delinquent parking violations.
The county also would ask law enforcement agencies to immobilize or impound vehicles whose owners have five or more notices for failure to appear in court on traffic violations.
The board also agreed to expand a program of notifying credit reporting agencies of unpaid fines and directed Sgobba to publish the names, offenses and fines owed by people with outstanding warrants or unpaid fines as of April 1, 1991.
"If civilized justice procedures alone are insufficient to encourage citizens to pay their debts to society, then community pressure should further encourage compliance with the law," Golding wrote in a memo to the board.
The board directed Chief Administrative Officer Norman Hickey's staff to determine the cost of sending out marshals to arrest people with the largest number of outstanding warrants who ignore the amnesty. They could face fines, vehicle impoundments or community service in lieu of jail time, Golding said.
The supervisors also will seek state legislation allowing the county to keep 20% of the fines to pay for the collection effort. The county's share of the fines makes collection a losing proposition, Golding said.
Last year, the county spent $150,000 pursuing unpaid fines, and received $20,000 in return. But the state, the county's special districts and its cities shared $800,000 in recouped revenue, she said.